Archive for September, 2012

Wallander: Firewall (2009)

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

If you look into the world of statistics or the more philosophical assessment of cause and effect when studying coincidence, the first myth dispelled is any kind of causal connection between the two or more phenomena under study. That these events have occurred is mere synchronicity no matter what the observer may wish to believe to the contrary. When it comes to coincidence in fiction, it’s a lazy way of having different events occur at or about the same time and then have our hero find these are not random but actually interconnected. So, before you can say, Jumping Jiminy is an amusement park recreating the fun and excitement of Pinocchio and nothing to do with the game of cricket or Jesus, our detective has drawn venn diagrams showing how they all overlap and that explains whodunnit. Which, perforce, brings us to Wallander: Firewall (2009) (produced by Yellow Bird — originally the company was owned by Henning Mankell but it’s now a Danish company). The original title was Brandvägg and the eighth book in the series.

So Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is looking even more hang-dog than usual, what with his marriage going down the tubes so, without telling him, his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) puts his details up on a dating website. In due course, there’s a hit from Ella Lindfeldt (Orla Brady) and, despite him standing her up on their first “date”, they seem to be striking some sparks off each other. In another part of town, a man is found dead in the city square not far away from the cash machine. There’s no obvious cause of death and his widow is convinced it can’t be a heart attack. The man was supposed to be as fit as a flea (metaphorically speaking) and likely to live for at least one-hundred years. Meanwhile, on the coast road, a young girl called Sonja Hokberg (Susannah Fielding) has murdered a taxi driver while her sister, Susana Hokberg (Rebecca Egan) looked on. During the interview, she frankly admits stabbing him multiple times, asserting that nothing matters any more.

Susannah Fielding and Rebecca Egan after the murder

OK so now things heat up. There’s a power failure at the police station and the electronic locks on the cells all fail in the “open” position so our murderess is able to just walk out and disappear. Like wow, man! When the lights go out, how many people head for the door of their cells to see if they can walk out? Well, only this one girl, it seems. Presumably, it could not have been preplanned because no-one communicates with her while in police custody. So it’s just a miraculous coincidence she’s able to escape. Then the folk down at the morgue discover the body of the healthy dead man has disappeared. Wallander applies a little thought and deduces that this theft was possible because there was no power and the electric locks failed in the open position. Anyway, when Wallander decides to break into this dead man’s flat, he chooses exactly the same time as the killer. The only reason Wallander does not have his head blown off is that, just as the killer is about to fire, he trips on a loose mat. How are we doing in the coincidence stakes? Anyway, in due course, all the lights go off again all over town —three’s a charm, so they say. When they investigate the find the body of Sonja Hokberg has been used to short-circuit the main fuses. She’s fried to a crisp. In due, the body of her boyfriend shows up. He’s been fed through an ice grinder so there’s not much of him left apart from a few smears on the crushed ice — what a waste since no cocktails can be made with that mixture. It’s always refreshing to find a killer with a genuinely gory approach to his work.

Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston and Luke Allen-Gale watching the computers

As if it could not get any worse, it then gets worse as it turns out that, three years earlier, Sonja had been raped by the taxi driver’s son but the sprog had not been prosecuted because loyal dad gave him an alibi. So it was just an unfortunate coincidence dad should turn up to collect Sonja from the beach when she was past caring what happened to her. Oh, yes, and that death near the cash machine — well the place of the death becomes a clue. And there’s a big coincidence when Robert Modin (Luke Allen-Gale) interrupts one of Wallander’s dates with Ella. He’s supposed to be under the control of Magnus Martinsso (Tom Hiddleston), but our young detective was less than diligent. There are other coincidence but it’s getting a little boring to draw them to your attention and they would be spoilers and we can’t have your enjoyment spoiled by giving away key events), now can we.

In short, Wallander: Firewall is terrible, being hopelessly contrived from start to finish. The real world never works like this and, no matter how well acted this may be, the result is just annoying.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

September 29, 2012 4 comments

In the distant past, Anon and Trad were able to take their time, honing phrases until they were elevated to idioms by popular acclamation. The idiom most relevant to this book depends on a pun. Yes, even in the 18th century, people liked to play with the meanings of words. For our purposes, the magic word is “dull”. In physical terms, this refers to a surface we would expect to be polished, but it has lost its shine, or it’s a reference to the fact a liquid is opaque. In metaphorical terms, it’s anything that’s boring or unexciting. As you will by now realise, the idiom is “dull as ditchwater” and it applies with full force to The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (DAW, 2012). For those of you who care about such things, this is the first in an intended series featuring the lead character who goes by the name of Bobby Dollar, an Angel actually named Doloriel. So, yes, we’re back in the land of the Christians and I’m obliged to remind readers that I’m a committed atheist so you can judge the extent to which my review is biased.

Now we’ve cleared the decks, here we go with the set-up. Bobby is one of the advocates. For those of you not up on the processing of the recently deceased, all the souls have to go through a judicial process to decide where they end up. That means both Heaven and Hell assign lawyer/advocates to argue the toss over whether you should get the fields of gold with optional manna or delicate flame-crisping around the edges for eternity. Not unnaturally, these partisan advocates need the inside dope pretty quickly, so every soul has a permanent guardian angel and devil who oversee the life and then give a quick precis to the advocates on death. That’s billions of postmortal workers kept in gainful employment by the big governments of Heaven and Hell, two for each soul while alive and two for the trial process. Then there are all the civil servants who have to allocate cases to the advocates and generally administer the system. And that’s before you get to all the celestial and hellish beings needed to run Heaven and Hell as laid down in the original design specifications and make sure that all the expected amenities are up to snuff.

Tad Williams with head and top lip laid bare

Now we have all that clear, this is a Christian meets a PI theme as Bobby Dollar gets embroiled in an investigation to find out why he’s suddenly on a hit list. I pause at this point to smile indulgently. Since angels are already dead, you might wonder why anyone should want to “kill” him. Well, to walk around on Earth, all postmortals have to occupy human bodies and these can be killed, a termination which sends the souls straight to their relevant HQs without passing Go and collecting the two-hundred dollars. It’s also relevant to mention that this killing of the host body is potentially painful and, if a little torture was to be involved, it could make the return to HQ long and excruciating, no matter which direction the soul was heading. It turns out there’s been a conspiracy between high-up members of Heaven and Hell and our hero gets caught up in the backwash. So, to get himself off the hook and avoid the death of his human host, Bobby has to crack the case, walking the mean streets until he gets the answers and sees justice done.

I suppose all this could have been quite interesting — the idea of corruption in Heaven is by no means original since angels have been falling from grace over the centuries with some degree of regularity — but the execution of this book is terminally dull. It’s rare for me to struggle to finish a book but, to be honest, I almost didn’t bother to finish this. The only thing that persuaded me to plough through the turgid prose was mild curiosity to see why the particular high-up angel had been tempted into this particular deal and just how far he/she/it would go to cover it up. Oh dear. My brain was only working with the same enthusiasm as a 5 watt light bulb. This is the first in a series. Of course we’re not going to find out who the senior conspirators are until the final book. Perhaps it may even turn out it’s actually God who’s upset by the current black-and-white system and wants to change it. I mean just look at how unfair it is. You can lead a life of average quality and then, through the luck of the draw on which advocates you’re allocated and the judge you get to hear your case, you could end up in purgatory for eternity. It would be much better if there was a via media, a middle way in which ordinary people could be sent to a quiet place to retire. Although it might lack the amenities of Heaven, it would not punish disproportionately for mild sins — an altogether fairer outcome on dying.

So The Dirty Streets of Heaven has a vaguely interesting premise and the way in which our hero disposes of the nasty beast sent to kill him is quite pleasing. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect even the most dedicated of Christians will be bored to tears by it all — assuming they don’t find it blasphemous, of course.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see Diary of a Dragon.

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

Dead Mine (2012)

September 28, 2012 4 comments

Well, here we go with the first original feature produced by HBO Asia and making its cinema debut this September. In different circumstances, this might have been a reasonably good film. From this, you will understand it was never going to be great as conceived, but it could have made a not unentertaining contribution to the horror/SF fusion canon of B-movies. As it actually appears on screen, however, it’s a disaster and, while not quite the worst film I’ve paid to see so far this year, it clearly wins the WTF Award of the Year for the decision on where to end it.


Let’s start with the good, such as it is. This is directed by Steven Sheil who shares the screenwriting credits with Ziad Semaan. The script has moments when you know someone with intelligence has been involved. There are references in the dialogue to the kind of well-known adventure and horror forerunners that the characters in this film might know. There are also some quite nice set pieces where the characters actually take a moment to say relevant and illuminating things about themselves and their situation. Unfortunately, the rest of the script is filled with clichés and, frankly, embarrassingly bad dialogue. That said, the production values are good and some of the effects are quite pleasing. In the fight sequences, there are some terrible instances of choppy cutting and poor continuity. I assume this is partially the result of a desire to avoid the highest audience rating. There’s a reasonable amount of gore, but there are cut-aways whenever we might get to watch anything too explicit. More significantly, we seem to suffer the missing body syndrome as some fights end without it being clear what happened to the bodies of anyone killed or seriously injured.

Ario Bayu and Bang Tigor let go with everything they’ve got


Now to the intractable problems. The terminally stupid leader of this expedition into the depths of Sulawesi, Indonesia, is Price (Les Loveday). He’s the rich offspring out to find Yamashita’s treasure, a cache of gold supposed to be in the Philipines but, thanks to the discovery of some messages decoded by Rie (Miki Muzuno), they have narrowed the search down to this island. He’s accompanied by Stanley (Sam Hazeldine) who’s supposed to be a mining engineer. Until recently, he was actually a British soldier but, having given up the fighting game, he’s become the number one go-to guy if you have an abandoned mine to explore. Needless to say, he comes into this without any proper equipment other than a torch he probably bought in Woolworth’s. He doesn’t have a hard hat let alone a geologist’s hammer so he could take samples or just hit a rock if he needs to take out his frustrations. Worse, as an ex-soldier, he’s unarmed apart from a knife. This leaves the armed guard duty to Tino Prawa (Ario Bayu), Papa Ular (Bang Tigor) and a couple of grunts who die quite quickly.


When they get to the titular mine (actually converted into a major underground facility by the Japanese during WWII), there’s a firefight outside. We have no idea who’s shooting at them. All we can say is an enormous volume of bullets are exchanged and no-one dies. Our heroes are, however, trapped inside with one wounded. Now here’s the thing. My experience in mines confirms that there’s solid, wall-to-wall darkness. Obviously, this is not good for the cinematography, so the entrance areas are lit by the magic lichen growing on the walls. Once inside, however, someone switches on all the lights. Yes, this mine may be seventy years old, but these Japanese engineers built to last. No problem about fuel for the generators and all the light bulbs still flare into life. Even the PA system churns out tracks from the Japanese Army’s Greatest Hits. What a welcome! Later we have to go back to the magic lichen as we investigate tunnels and caves underneath the bunker system but, by then, our eyes have adapted to the dark.

Sam Hazeldine and Miki Muzuno try to think of a way out of this mess


Then all becomes clear. These Japanese were conducting a large scale series of medical experiments on POWs and it turns out the Australians, stubborn bastards to a man, were particularly hard to kill. Many of these POWs have survived in the tunnels under the laboratories, becoming mutants as a result of exposure to gas and drugs in the early stage of testing. They wear muzzles that make it impossible to eat. Despite this, they have survived, presumably eating animals caught in the nearby jungle (sic). Food walking into the mine is a godsend for them and they do manage to chomp away at bits of those they catch (cunningly taking their muzzles off when we’re not looking or something). As our explorers look around this facility, there’s no sign of any food yet, in due course, they meet the inevitable Japanese soldier who’s refused to believe the war has ended. At least he’s good for explaining about the experiments even if we have no idea how he could have survived for seventy years without any obvious source of food or water to drink. Nor does Rie think to ask him why he turned on the lights and offered inspirational music when they came into the mine.


At this point, everything gets really silly (no, really, it wasn’t silly up to now). Yes, those medical researchers made the key breakthrough that has eluded modern scientists and produced the serum to manufacture supersoldiers. Tino Prawa and Papa Ular trigger the mousetrap. Squadrons of samurai warriors lurch into life and leave the mine. Except, just when the silliness ended and we were about to get into the meat of the action, the film stopped dead in its tracks. This is now a military emergency on Sulawesi. The Japanese troops would begin slaughtering everyone they come across. When the military and civil authorities deal with this and trace everything back to the mine, they will find all the written descriptions of the experiments and samples of the formula. What will they do with this information? I could go on but the screenwriters should have had a field day pursuing the logic of their set-up. There were wonderful opportunities for fighting in the jungle, planes dropping high-explosive bombs, firing rockets, and so on. Followed by knowledge explosions as the mine gives up its secrets. What would the world’s largest Islamic nation do with a formula to make supersoldiers?


Expecting people to pay to see content of this calibre is an insult. On HBO, viewers might have enjoyed the performances of Ario Bayu and Bang Tigor as the more effective soldiers, while Miki Muzuno shines as the only one with any intelligence (although quite what her real motives are for being there is not explained). Sam Hazeldine gives a reasonable performance. Everyone else is wooden and unconvincing. So Dead Mine is dead on arrival and should have gone straight to video.


Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Lurking in the dense undergrowth of Swedish police procedurals are the outstanding books by Henning Mankell who’s best known for the novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander. This is the BBC television adaptation of the fifth book in the series called, Villospår (translated as Sidetracked). The novel was first filmed in 2001 with Wallander played by Rolf Lassgård. There has also been a Swedish television series of original stories featuring Krister Henriksson as Wallander. This somewhat inspiring but not uncomplicated history brings us to the British television series which is a combined effort between Swedish production company Yellow Bird (originally Mankell’s own company but now owned by a Danish company which produced the Millennium “The Girl Who” films — including the US version — and Headhunters) and British Left Bank Pictures starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. Uncharacteristically for a British adaptation which usually picks Scunthorpe or somewhere equally inspiring to stand in for Scandinavia, this was actually shot in Sweden, albeit largely with a British cast. This makes the adaptations much more authentic — it being the real Sweden that we see.

Kenneth Branagh and David Warner thinking about their relationship

Because we’re starting in the middle of things, Wallander has already separated from his wife, Mona, and so is even more depressed than usual. During the course of this episode, he makes progress in healing the relationship with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). What this adaptation fails to do is deal with the backstory. We start off in the rape seed fields with a girl committing suicide as Wallander looks on helplessly. Even under the best of circumstances this would be traumatic for a police officer. There he is, prepared to talk the hind legs off a donkey to persuade her to live yet, when he produces his police warrant card, she sets fire to herself. Later another girl involved in the case attempts suicide. In the novel series, Linda has also attempted suicide and this fact explains why Wallander is so distressed by the immediate events. He’s also forced to confront the first major signs of dementia in his father Povel (David Warner). He’s always been bad tempered, but this is prone to excess at home with his second wife, Gertrude (Polly Hemmingway) and leads him into a fight in his local supermarket. This slow disintegration of his father is a steady theme given his track record as an artist, obsessively painting highly similar landscapes for his entire career. Later, of course, Wallander becomes concerned about his own mental state.

Jeany Spark trying to keep the family together

From this, you’ll understand that the television adaptation is following the novel’s original structure by focussing on the characters who just happen to be family or whether directly or indirectly, caught up in the murder investigations. For this structure to succeed, the characters must be inherently interesting and the balance with a good puzzle must be properly struck. If the screenwriters get it wrong, we’ll grow bored by the characters because they don’t have enough room to develop, or we’ll find the crimes trivialised. In this case, the crimes are from the heavyweight division. The suicide proves to be one of the girls caught up in a white slaver prostitution ring. The problem for Wallander therefore, is to understand exactly who was involved in the systematic abuse of these women — not something the upstanding members of Swedish society are too keen on admitting even though they may be next on the killer’s list. We also have incest and child abuse involved. In many ways, this is throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the plot, but it actually does come together without seeming too excessive. In the end, it all comes down to a simple reality. The victims all deserved to die because their crimes were hideously excessive. In the midst of trying to keep himself in one piece, Wallander metaphorically leaves one of the surviving villains as the tethered goat to lure out the killer. It’s a terrible cliché but, in this instance, actually works quite well. In no small way, this is a credit to the actors involved who manage to carry off the potential silliness with great authority and calmness.

It’s interesting to see Tom Hiddleston in a relatively minor role as Magnus Martinsson, a youngish member of the police team while David Warner makes a stunningly good patriarch. Kenneth Branagh also seems in his element as Wallander making this adaptation of Sidetracked genuinely impressive.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)

Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon

September 26, 2012 1 comment

Some believe the world should never change. They are comfortable with the now as it is, doubting that innovation can ever really be an improvement. The alternative possibilities are never directly considered. Indeed, the possibility of change is disconcerting to such people and to be avoided wherever possible. In political terms, conservatism is inherently popular, preserving the traditional, maintaining stability, and promoting continuity. Yet, in some areas of human activity, the pace of change is embraced. So technology marketing convinces us that yesterday’s 3.6 was nothing more than a stepping stone to the terrifying power of 4.0 which can all be ours for only a few pounds/dollars more. We’re encouraged to throw away the old, and queue like androids to acquire the next i-prefixed gismo.

Ignoring the local folklore creatures, the modern notion of the vampire stems from The Vampyre by John Polidori. Since 1819, therefore, we’ve essentially been recycling the same trope of beings that feed on blood drawn from living creatures. In most cases, they return from the dead and exhibit other supernatural abilities including transformation into a bat or a mist form. The best exponents can also psychologically dominate their potential victims. So, whenever you see the magic word “vampires” or suitable images on jacket artwork, you know what you’re getting. The only variables are in the language and the way in which the vampirism is described, changing the market focus from forms suitable for children, addressing the teen market, and then delivering different adult plots depending on whether the vampires are straight or gay, self-reflective parasites or predatory killers.

Marion G Harmon a superhero beginning the breakthrough

We now come to Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G Harmon. Because he likes to keep his audience on their toes, this is the third book in the Wearing the Cape series, except it’s really 1.5, fitting between events described in Wearing the Cape and Villains Inc. More importantly, it focuses on Jacky Bouchard aka Artemis, a relatively minor character in the first two books, and gives her a leading role in this intermediate book. Obviously, we’re still in The Post-Event World, i.e. individuals can react to life-threatening events by spontaneously developing breakthrough superpowers. This is relatively rare but, when it occurs, the individual’s new abilities or powers reflect something psychologically important to them. For our immediate purposes, it skews the usual vampire “parenting” trope. In most traditional stories, the existing bloodsucker will descend on the flock, gorge until sated, and then throw the dry husk away. This is the rational predator at work. If a biter uplifts a bitee every time it feeds, that’s a lot of competition emerging onto the meat market. Suddenly, the sheep grow alarmed by their losses and take defensive measures. Worse, the original vampire may have to fight newbies to establish and maintain territorial rights over the flock. Only in rare cases does a vampire intentionally create another. Well, courtesy of Marion G Harmon, we have a different route. If you’re a passionate vampirephile, you can breakthrough into superpowers except, instead of being faster than a speeding bullet, you’re sprouting fangs and suddenly terrified of eating a garlic sauce with your fettuccine.

This is no more disconcerting to society than developing the power to manipulate one of the elements or fly. Any power in the wrong hands can be a danger to those in the immediate area. So, in principle, you can have good and bad superpowered individuals, plus the opportunistic swingers. Our heroine is a good vampire who’s sent to New Orleans to help police the local vampires. State laws prevent them from feeding on humans under the age of eighteen, so age verification at the doors of pubs and clubs used by vampires has to be reliable. Fairly quickly, she realises there’s a more serious problem developing as a vampire may have broken through with the power to create other vampires. Alternatively, a new drug is enabling a small percentage of the users who die to be reborn as vampires. No matter which cause proves correct, the idea there may soon be a plague of vampires is something up with which society will not put. So Jacky, a local police officer with only a semi-controllable hairstyle, a member of the Catholic Inquisition, and a granny with a powerful mojo, take the side of righteousness and set out to save New Orleans, if not the world, from being overrun by an army of powerful predators.

The most pleasing aspect of this book is the rigorous way in which the author explores the new world. For example, who would have thought there could be such significant advantages to a vampire like Jacky when she goes breaking and entering. His analysis of the relative strengths of security systems including motion and heat sensors is great fun. Home security would need a whole new upgrade if vampires were real. The only minor problem is a slight straining of credibility in our heroine’s apparent lack of understanding of the relative strength and weakness of vampires. Speaking hypothetically, if I was suddenly to become a vampire, I would immediately begin a series of tests to discover exactly what my limits were. I would also seek expert advice from as many people as possible. After a few weeks, it would be very difficult to take me by surprise. While working with the Capes, Artemis has had many opportunities to talk with the leading experts in the field. Yet this book shows Jacky still relatively unprepared for taking on her own kind in New Orleans (although she does learn fast).

Bite Me: Big Easy Nights shows Marion G Harmon maturing as an author. This is an assured performance, nicely balancing interesting ideas against the need to propel the plot forward. More importantly, he’s also pushing the vampire trope into slightly less familiar territory. The blend of superhero and supernatural conventions is far more successful here than in the mass of urban fantasy novels which mix different types of being together and let them fight it out. You could read this as a standalone but, as is always the case in a series, it would be a richer experience if you’d read Wearing the Cape. So no more conservatism. Forget 1819. Rapidly accelerate past 1.0 and 2.0 and embrace the terrifying power of 1.5!

For reviews of other books by Marion G Harmon, see:
Small Town Heroes
Villains Inc
Wearing the Cape
Young Sentinels

A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review and you can buy it on Amazon by clicking here.

Mad Detective or San taam (2007)

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Mad Detective or San taam (2007) is an ingenious, if slightly tedious and ultimately flawed, police procedural out of Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai who shared the screenwriting credits with Kin-Yee Au. The point of the film is to strike a balance between three usually distinct subgenre elements. In conventional plots, when the police investigate a crime, the detective works diligently to solve the case, where necessary engaging in violence — hopefully only in self-defence. In this instance, however, our “hero”, Inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) is a young and very inexperienced detective who’s somewhat out of his depth. Yes, he’s had an exemplary track record through the academy, but the real world is far more challenging than he ever imagined it could be. Caught up in a complicated case in which a detective has disappeared, but his gun has been used in a series of robberies, he decides to contact an older detective for help. This despite the fact this man was forced to retire on mental health grounds. So we meet Inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) who cut off his ear as a leaving present when his then boss retired. It’s not unusual for fictional detectives to suffer varying degrees of mental disability. The device adds to the suspense element: will the detective solve the crime despite being as crazy as a loon. However, this detective’s mental health problems are complicated by what may be a type of supernatural ability. It’s at this point that the basis of the film gets somewhat confused.

Inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) shoots to kill


We’re used to the idea of profilers who are able to put themselves in the shoes of the criminals and get insights into their characters and motivations. There are various ways in which this empathetic process are conducted. Some walk around the crime scenes, talk with surviving witnesses, and generally look at the ceiling until analytical inspiration strikes. This man Bun is far more active, physically replaying the crimes, where necessary using his finger as if it was a gun and threatening to shoot people. The camera shifts point of view so we see the detective re-enacting the crimes on the street, in a bank, a convenience store, and so on. But we also see the crimes as he sees them, and understand why he’s able to make the deductions. However, not only does he recreate crimes in his mind, he’s also accompanied by a woman he believes is his wife. They have a very strong relationship with her able to give him a better sense of balance about the world. Finally, he sees people not as unique individuals, but as the embodiment of sometimes multiple personalities. This is somewhat confusing because, for example, when he looks at the police officer, Ko Chi-wai (Ka Tung Lam), who was the partner of the missing detective, he sees seven separate personalities. Each one of these personalities is given a physical reality when we see Chi-wai from Bun’s point of view.

Inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) feeling desperate


In a scene near the end, we have a rerun of the shootout in a room of mirrors. This is a terrible cliché but, in this instance, it’s more interesting because, as the mirror fragments fall to the ground, we get to see different characters reflected in the shards. It represents a compelling way of capturing the notion that a person’s mind can be fractured into separate personalities. However the directors couldn’t make up their minds how to use the different elements. The result is a confusing lack of consistency which prevents the film from achieving any degree of coherence. There should be a rigorous separation of points of view so that we only see the alternate personalities when Bun is actively involved in each scene. That way we can understand how and why he relates to the young detective as if the latter is literally a young boy and why the fictitious woman has replaced his real-world wife. But we see different personalities offering help and advice when he’s not in shot. These “characters” appear in the cast list. Hence, for example, Suet Lam and Jay Lau play two of the personalities “existing” within Chi-wai’s mind, and we see them interacting and talking to Chi-wai. This breaks the convention and spoils the logic of the film. Are we to assume Chi-wai and other characters have comparable multiple personality disorders when we see the world from their point of view? The directors can’t have it both ways. Either everyone is crazy and has multiple personalities, or the ingenuity of the plot device with Bun able to detect multiple personalities is lost.


This is a shame because the disappearance of the police officer and the continuing use of his gun are the basis of an interesting puzzle to solve. With more discipline to show the mind of a mentally disordered retired detective at work, Mad Detective or San taam could have been a very good film. Sadly, it just ends up being a bit silly.


Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan
The Great Magician
Life Without Principle
Overheard 2


Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The pleasing thing about writing is that the process is flexible. The better authors can develop their own styles, matching the prose to the content as needed. Some will go for dense text, full of detail and sophisticated ideas. Others will strip down the prose with very short paragraphs, sometimes no more than a single sentence. The choices will vary depending on the writer’s intention, fitting the style to the mood or setting the desired narrative pace. Short and punchy sentences propel the plot forward with the maximum effect. Detail is introduced to add depth to the reading experience. This can set the scene, build atmosphere, give insights into the thinking of the active participants, and so on. Then we get into the vocabulary choices and sentence construction, some writers preferring simple language, communicating meaning efficiently and often with deceptive ease — it’s actually not always easy capture complicated situations without resorting to more specialist terminology — others use more specific word choices as shorthand to match the dictates of a genre and deliver the expected scenarios with the minimum of fuss to those familiar with the jargon.

Luther on television is up for four awards in the 2012 Primetime Emmys which is an indication of quality with an excellent performance from Idris Elba as the London-based detective in this modern inverted crime format show. Those of you who enjoy looking back will hopefully have read R Austen Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, and Roy Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends, stories which show how the detectives catch the criminals. The interest lies in the processes of investigation and suspense builds by showing whether the criminals are able to divert suspicion. In this, I suppose the Columbo television series will remain the best loved with Peter Falk’s performance consistently interesting. It’s also a fascinating commentary on the class divide in American culture. Here’s this working-class, apparently humble man who looks as though he got dressed in the dark and, most of the time, he’s out to trap a killer from the wealthy strata of society. Because of their arrogance, these more socially powerful murderers consistently underestimate the battered specimen of humanity that keeps intruding into their space.

Neil Cross, screenwriter and author of the Luther series

Luther is also a social commentary in that this is a Detective Chief Inspector from a “minority” racial group. In the real world, few non-white officers manage to gain promotion to the higher ranks (or hold on to them once there). The British Police force is institutionally racist, both within its own ranks and in its posture to the community it’s supposed to serve and protect. From the outset, therefore, the television series is exploring difficult territory because, of necessity, this detective must hold his position within the ranks and interact with the public (including the suspects) in a way that elicits the maximum amount of information from which to determine who committed the crimes under investigation. This is an obsessive but brilliant man, prone to violence and frequently under pressure. When you add in the nature of the crimes he’s given to investigate, it confirms a generally dark nature to the proceedings. Unlike Columbo which always had a sly sense of humour, this series is hard-hitting and psychologically interesting. Although this is not a review of the television series, it’s worth watching — albeit somewhat formulaic, it improves as the characters develop.

As we come closer to the expected third series of original television stories charting the investigations run by Luther, we have a treat in the form of Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster, 2012). This won the New Zealand Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and was listed for the British Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. This is the origin story or prequel to the television series as the screenwriter writes the novel to describe the case that pushed Luther closer to the edge of a breakdown. From the outset, we get an insight into the way in which the crimes are committed although it takes quite some time before Luther can begin to put a name to the killer. As we might expect, the crime under investigation is horrific. Someone has carefully entered a quiet suburban home while the couple are asleep, butchered the man and killed the pregnant wife but stealing the baby, potentially alive.

With his marriage in serious trouble and his loyal sidekick Ian Reed in hospital, the victim of a punishment beating by a local criminal, Luther must navigate the difficult emotions with the minimum of support. That he does so by bending, if not ignoring, the rules is what we expect of our flawed heroes. Although there’s little here which adds anything new to the police procedural genre, all the elements are presented in such a fluent and elegant stripped-down prose that you can’t help but zip along, not caring whether the plot is predictable. In fact, it does prove a challenging puzzle to solve and, albeit not in the best circumstances, Luther does succeed in reuniting families. So The Calling is one of the best of the police procedural bunch so far this year. If you enjoy violence both from the criminals and the detectives who’s task it is to track them down, this is a must-read.

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

For a review of the television series, see
Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)
Luther: Season 1 episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).

Hellbox by Bill Pronzini

September 23, 2012 1 comment

In the publishing game, one of the great imponderables for an author is how to preserve the cash flow when the major publishing houses are reluctant to depart from their usual production schedule, i.e. one hardback original every year with mass market paperbacks filling in the gaps as and when the publishers have maximised their take from the higher units costs of the hardback. The answer as demonstrated by Bill Pronzini is to keep switching genres, write with other authors as a team, and adopt pseudonyms. That way, you can keep the flow of books coming thick and fast. For those of you who like numbers, this is the thirty-ninth novel in the series featuring Bill, the Nameless Detective. Not bad really since we’re not also counting the multiple short stories.

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

Hellbox (Tor-Forge, 2012), the latest contribution, sees the hero’s desire to migrate slowly from activity to the inactivity of retirement interrupted. Nameless and Kerry are looking for a second home. This is not a retirement home as such, but one that’s far enough away from the office Bill might actually start giving up his desire to work. They settle on a cabin just outside Six Pines: one of these small towns up in the Sierra foothills. To get a feel for the location and the people of the area, they rent the cabin for a few days. Unfortunately, this puts Kerry in the wrong place at the wrong time as she goes walking around the forest to get her bearings. This takes us into a kidnapping situation. A killer on a revenge mission keeps the witness on ice until he can complete the job. This gives Nameless and Jake Runyon time to start running a search on the ground. Tamara works from the office, digging out information from computer records and our seasoned pros get on the trail.

With the point of view shifting between the killer, Kerry, Nameless and Jake, we get to see all sides of this problem and how it may be solved. The result is a solid, entertaining read. It has no pretensions. The prose is slick and highly readable. The narrative is stripped down to its essentials so we positively charge through the plot as our killer’s ambition for revenge escalates. It all comes down to Jake asking the right questions. Bill’s emotions are getting in the way and he’s not at his best. The result is a highly professional PI novel with the detective having a very personal stake in the outcome. I find it slightly unoriginal and a little flat, but Hellbox is a good way of continuing the story of the Nameless Detective, his wife and the other characters.

For reviews of other novels by Bill Pronzini, see:

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

Wicked Nights With a Proper Lady by Tiffany Clare

September 23, 2012 1 comment

An inferno of curiosity burned through my veins as I picked up this book. Would the purple prose sear my senses? Have I secretly been craving the sweet torture of reading interruptus, i.e. getting into the dark mystery between the pages only to have my wife walk in on me before the chapter is over? Well, against my better judgement, I talked myself into reading a romance. This folly comes from accidentally picking up one or two books labelled as being in the fantasy genre, only to discover they were actually romances in the old-school style. Finding them some what tedious, I thought it a good idea to read something that actually announces itself as a romance. Not, of course, that I want to make a habit of reading such books. But out of a scientific curiosity to see how far the genre has moved on since I last dipped my wick into some wax to make a candle.

For me, the main interest in Wicked Nights With a Proper Lady by Tiffany Clare (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) does not lie in the second meeting of our heroine and her ex-hero. There’s never any suspense in such events. It’s always obvious they will end up in bed with each other, either literally or metaphorically depending on the house style. Yes, the main publishing houses have formalised guidelines dictating what their couples can or cannot do with or to each other. Some permit only the most chaste of physical contacts while fantasies of clutching and holding dominate the interior monologues. Other allow relatively steamy sex scenes although, of course, the language portrays the intimacy in wonderfully euphemistic terms. I suppose the substance of what’s described could be taken as hard core pornography, but the language will always be suitable for very polite middle-class company.

Tiffany Clare picturing herself in a hothouse

Anyway, the real interest in the book lies both in its lack of real social commentary and in the viciousness of a subplot. Taking the thin subplot which deserves a lot more coverage, the Countess of Fallon is in a terrible marriage. As is always the case, the question of inheritance dominates the conversation both within the family and in the wider social group. There’s a form of consensus as to who should and should not take title and property when the dominant male dies. For those of you not into the intricacies of testamentary succession, wills can tie up estates for generations, dictating who shall have the right to take based on their full- or half-blood relationships to the original owners and/or the rules of complex trusts. The book opens with the funeral of the husband and the now dowager (Jez to her friends) is slowly shown to be ill. The explanation and its effect on the entail is a classic example of wanton cruelty. Since Jez proves to have some practical relevance later on, it’s a shame more is not made of this. Although, I suppose, it could all be left for a sequel together with the broader political question of the regulation and taxation of sugar production in the West Indies.

Looking overall, there’s modern tenor of disapproval about some of the other social customs of London society in 1846, with some implied commentary on the overt hypocrisy of the social set. I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the relative invisibility of the servants. The world described here was only possible because of the exploitation of the people in service. Yet the author is not intending to write a historical novel so I suppose we can pass blithely over the question of how the women of this class managed to get into and out of their clothes, got their hair to look so perfect, and so on. As a romance, we enter a kind of fantasy version of historical reality where everything is subordinated to the development of the love between the heroine and her man. In that sense, we have a not-unpleasing context for the “drama” between our heroine Genevieve Camden and our potential Lothario, Leonidas Harrow, Earl of Barrington. They had a sexual affair some four years before the book begins and it resumes about halfway through this book.

Given the essentially fantasy nature of the book, there’s little effort to write in a period prose style appropriate to Britain of this period. We’re simply given the usual run of sexually-charged euphemisms and purple prose in contemporary language. It was nevertheless more explicit than I had expected. It seems this publisher is aiming at a more adult niche of the market. Wicked Nights With a Proper Lady is therefore as good of its type as you would expect. As a summary: Leo gets steamy in the greenhouse with Genny and it was Col Mustard with the tongue in the maze with Lady H.

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

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell

September 22, 2012 1 comment

Rather more years ago than I care to remember (although the fact I can remember is reassuring — it keeps my fear of Alzheimer’s at bay), I paid to see If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. It was one of those faintly titillating films, rather popular at the time, in which the sexist behaviour of young men was gently satirised. More relevantly for our purposes, it showed a whistle-stop tour around nine countries in eighteen days. Let’s pause for a moment to consider how meaningful the stay in each country would be. Or, put another way, the title has it right when it hints that the country is irrelevant to the point of the journey. So here’s Jack Campbell, a pseudonym for John G Hemry. He’s a military SF guy and has been doing a tour of our neck of the galactic woods in The Lost Fleet series which has now gone Beyond the Frontier.

The simple version has the human area of this space divided between the capitalists and the communists (the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds). As is required in all military scenarios, the actual politics of the two sides is largely irrelevant because all the author and his readers really want to do is deal with the fighting. In fact, the governments on both sides are corrupt and incompetent, and only a few good people at key times and places can keep the individual planetary systems going. The primary hero is “Captain” John Geary (better known as Black Jack) and he does his best to keep the hypernet system in play and so preserves the metatransport system for future generations. Things hot up when he’s sent to investigate the aliens who lurk on the border. So we’re now spread over the two declining “Empires” while Black Jack is battling aliens and/or allying himself with aliens. Although the questions of gender are reasonably well handled with women in government and the military rising through glass ceilings and performing as well as the men, the more general political systems are very superficial and reflect the prejudices built into the current American playbook, i.e. by world standards, it’s very right wing.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Of course, that does not of itself mean the books are essentially fascist and that, if they were fascist, this would be a “bad thing”. The humans on both sides have been caught up in essentially authoritarian systems with a high degree of mutual antagonism. As individual communities go through fairly convulsive changes, there’s a general need for a range of players to discuss the faults in the current arrangements and how matters might be rearranged to achieve better outcomes. In this, the relationship between civil authority and military command is a constant theme. The focus on the military also means notions of honour and duty are paramount. The civil authorities are more often interested in power for its own sake. There’s little sense of honour although, sometimes, fanatical levels of duty. Most government officials are intent on preserving their own positions even though this may not benefit the “people”. In this, it’s fairly obvious the author is pro-democracy but there signs of nuance in some of the scenarios and the associated discussions. There are also questions raised about the role of religion and the extent to which it should influence the behaviour of governments and the way in which the military operates.

In The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell (Ace, 2012), we’re dealing with a rebellion led by a political and a military leader who manages to overcome mutual suspicion long enough to seize control of the star system. For the record, this is the first novel told from the perspective of a Syndic world and it takes place at the same time as Black Jack is off meeting the aliens. We then get descriptions of both land-based and space battles as General Drakon and President Iceni collect military materiel wherever it can conveniently be found, and pick sides in a civil war in an adjacent star system. Since they have thrown off their Syndic yolk, they would prefer not to have a Syndic system in their backyard. Given the background, this is continuing the broader narrative thrust of the series and the descriptions of the military matters is done very well. Unfortunately, I find the broader political discussions rather tedious. I understand why the author wants to include this material. It obviously gives some depth to the shifting patterns of government power and allegiances. But I find the general tenor of the debates rather superficial and somewhat prejudiced. I could have followed the story and enjoyed the broad narrative flow if the text have been reduced by about 25%.

So for those of you following the series, The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight is more of the same and, if you enjoyed what has already been published, you will enjoy this.

For a review of other works by Jack Campbell, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast.

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

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