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Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle

January 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Yesterdays-Echo-3D

Well, this is going to be a novelty. Today’s book is Yesterday’s Echo by Matt Coyle (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and, for once, I’m going to write two shorter reviews. The first will be for younger readers. The second will be for geriatric curmudgeons like me. Why two reviews? Because this is a hardboiled novel somewhat in the style of Raymond Chandler. Some of you reading this will know the name but never have read any of his shorter stories or novels. The first review is for you.

 

Think of a man with a past in which something terrible happened. In this case, he was wrongly accused of murder. He manages to avoid prosecution but runs away and finds somewhere to hide. Think of this as entering a pupa state in which he will lie relatively dormant until the metamorphosis is complete and it’s time for him to emerge. As the years pass, the chrysalis hardens and much effort is required to break out. When the process is complete, what entered the papa state as a police officer will emerge as a fully adult PI. This is the key characteristic of a Chandler hero. That he is, first and foremost, a detective. Nothing changes that reality. That’s why he never has any private life. Although he has a place to sleep, it’s not really a place he will convert into a home by marrying. Indeed, apart from casual sex, he’s unlikely even to have a girlfriend. This book starts with a series of relatively minor incidents at the restaurant he manages. He encounters a girl. Later he has sex with her but this is almost immediately complicated. Two heavy hitters ask him about the girl. His refusal to answer results in pain. Then by one of the coincidence needed to get hardboiled stories like this underway, her ex-husband turns up dead in the room she had at a local motel. He may not be a PI (yet) but he has a client and she needs him to work out what’s happening. On the way, there’s some nice laconic wit and plenty of interesting plot developments. Put all this together and you have the beginning of what promises to be an exciting new series as our butterfly hangs out his shingle as a PI and looks for business.

Matt Coyle, an author with a view

Matt Coyle, an author with a view

 

The second review should start with the reminder that Chandler didn’t actually start writing professionally until he was fired from his job as an oil executive in 1932. For the record, The Big Sleep made it on to the shelves just before the outbreak of war in 1939. We’ve had PI Philip Marlowe embedded in our public consciousness ever since. I grew up in the 1950s devouring secondhand pulps like Black Mask, reading back through all the excitement of life in this violent but interesting country called America. For a kid growing up on the north bank of the Tyne with nothing more exciting than drunken brawling between the crews of the fishing fleet when the weather forced all the different nationalities to shelter in port, and occasional gang violence, the magazines offered a view of a radically different place where crime was endemic and the characters were not a little romantic. Chandler, Hammett and James M Cain ruled the roost in those days but there were a vast number of wannabes who crowded out the pages of pulps and novels, all hoping for the market to recognise them as the next big thing. In the end, I got bored by the repetitiveness of the plots. In the early 1960s I moved on from the detective/mystery genre into science fiction, fantasy and horror. Today, the only people I rate as having continued the Chandler style of PI novels are Robert B Parker and Walter Mosely even though both Spencer and Easy Rawlins break the mould and have fairly serious relationships. It’s the implicit attitude that counts.

 

So this is a book that does absolutely everything right. It has an excellent plot which carefully provides us with a choice of villains, the cops are unknown quantities (most assumed to be prejudiced and hostile), and Melody has that slightly arch, vampish quality that marks the transition of a “type” through time. Insofar as we can have a modern Bacall, this would be her. The only trouble is that this tough guy with an urge to be protective of anything wearing a skirt that muscles in on his life is too much in the classic mould. I didn’t feel he was truly a contemporary figure for all his backstory in the police and his current loyalties to those helping him rebuild after the”disaster”. He feels “old school”. The reason why I like Mosely and miss Parker is their heroes moved on. Even though Mosely set his novels in the past, they are still contemporary novels.

 

Frankly, I don’t think younger readers will notice or care. I think they will read this first-in-a-new-series and demand more. But for me, the senior who’s seen it all before, it lacks a contemporary spark. It’s an excellent example of a PI novel I would have hoped to read twenty years ago. So if you’ve never read Raymond Chandler or any of the other period hardboiled writers, you’re going to enjoy Yesterday’s Echo. Older guys like me will think it a good shot at a Chandleresque PI novel that just misses the bullseye. Hopefully the next in the series will have a more modern tone.

 

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

 

Secret Investigation Record or Joseon X-Files: Secret Book or Gichalbirok or 기찰비록 (2010) episodes 1 to 6

January 30, 2013 Leave a comment

413px-SecretInvestigationRecord

Secret Investigation Record or Joseon X-Files: Secret Book or Gichalbirok or 기찰비록 (2010) starts us off in 1609. We’re watching the execution of the leader of the Malseju Sect (the End of the World Society) under the supervision of Gangwon Governor Lee Hyeongwook and this coincides with the apparent arrival of a flying saucer. Yes, this really is the Joseon version of the X-Files as a number of strange, unexplained phenomena, i.e. low-flying alien craft, put an already superstitious population into a state of dread. When news arrives in Hanyang, there’s natural scepticism and most prefer to believe mental illness in the Governor. So let’s take one step back to understand the politics. Under Confucianism as promoted by the yangban classes, i.e. the generals, nobles and scholars, society was to be ethical, civilised and ordered. The effect of imposing moderation and gentlemanly behaviour was actually to stifle criticism when the leaders did not show the appropriate levels of integrity, righteousness, loyalty, altruism and respect for the people. But that’s always the way power works. At the top of the tree was the Emperor who was said to have the Mandate of Heaven. Confucianism is not a religion as such and so this does not have the same force as the Christian equivalent Divine Right of Kings. But if there were unexplained lights in the sky and earth-shaking events followed, these could be interpreted as Heaven criticising the Emperor. Spreading news of such ill omens might undermine the stable relationship between ruler and subject, and would therefore be considered tantamount to treason unless you were a certified shaman and had the status to interpret supernatural or astronomical events in a politically acceptable way.

Meanwhile our hero, Kim Hyeong Do (Kim Ji-Hoon), is investigating corrupt gambling practices. When he gets the call to investigate, he and his assistant Jang (Jo Hie-Bong) find the Governor Lee Hyeongwook under torture, accused of perjury and even more serious matters alleging a conspiracy to undermine the respect for the King. However, there are those in government who have records of previous sightings. On the ground, however, other government officials pass the whole thing off as a meteor except they are torturing a villager who insists on trying to report the abduction of everyone else from his village. Those pesky aliens seem to have been rounding up a few humans for their evil purposes. When our hero finds the same location mentioned in the journal kept by the Governor and the leader of the Malseju Sect, he’s off to investigate, finds the empty village and a dog dead with unexplained injuries. There’s then an interesting alien intervention which moves our hero about an hour back in time. Fascinated he heads off for the mountain which seems to be the source of the problem, only to be arrested and warned off on peril of his life.

Kim Ji-Hoon and Lim Jung-Eun face the unknown

Kim Ji-Hoon and Lim Jung-Eun face the unknown

Naturally, he returns to the village and finds another survivor who dies when he touches one of the flying balls. As the sky fills with light, our hero is off to see whatever is to be seen. It’s a full encounter of the second kind with lights flashing, the ground trembling, and the alien craft in full view. Except, of course, no-one believes him and Jang tells everyone who will listen what they want to hear to escape punishment. With our hero tied to a chair for torture, Ji Seung (Kim Kap-Soo) appears. He’s the Left Royal Secretary and has been running the Government’s covert surveillance operation. This role makes him The Smoking Man (Joseon style means he has a pipe burning in most shots). Originally played by William B Davis, this character is part of the government’s attempt to suppress information about the alien colonisation. When it becomes clear to Kim Hyeong Do the only way he can save his life is to recant his testimony, he does so. This leads to a meeting with Heo Yoon-Yi (Lim Jung-Eun) (every Mulder deserves a Scully). Now he’s recruited into a history project. Everything unexplained is written down and sealed from public view in the hope, one day, that people will find the information useful.

So the first real case allocated to the pair concerns a broken tablet cast in gold. The carvings on it show people all looking at something in the sky. It probably dates from early Silla. Unfortunately, modern people coming into close contact with it over any period of time fall seriously ill. One has already died. A small bird rested in its surface dies in minutes. This looks like acute radiation poisoning. Needless to say, one piece of the tablet has been stolen on the way to the capital and, by devious means, one of the scholars gets hold of it. He has a theory the gold is only surface deep and, if he melts it off, he will find something “different”. Unfortunately when he tries it, it explodes killing him and the blacksmith. This leaves Ji Seung digging in the wreckage for clues while Kim Hyeong Do and Heo Yoon-Yi skirt around the issue of whether they are interested in each other romantically by agreeing to investigate her loss of memory.

Kim Kap-Soo as Pipe Man

Kim Kap-Soo as Pipe Man

The second case sees them pursuing a were “monster” who’s killing once a month in Jangju province. Someone is allowing prisoners to escape from jail as food for it. It could be the doctor who has a disabled son or it may be one of the officials. The daughter of the magistrate seems to hold the key. Then Kim Hyeong Do sees a humanoid creature with emerald eyes in the forest. Although it starts slowly and is initially little more than a slight atmosphere piece with lots of wandering around in the forest by day and night, the resolution is quite emotionally satisfying. I sincerely hope the officials quarantined off the pool in the forest and.or took samples of the water. Then we have a case of possession producing automatic writing as part of a more general precognitive ability. Our precog picks up the hero’s identity token and sees how the future will play out but loses the book of predictions he’s been carrying around. Some of the predictions affect the King so Kim Hyeong Do has to decide what to do. The resolution seems to be part of an emerging pattern. There’s a real emotional payoff which is rather unexpected. To that extent, the episode succeeds. But it’s another slim plot, barely more than a sketched idea blown up to a full length. The “Ghosts of Yidu” sees us playing with a haunted house that has just killed off a soothsayer trying to drive away the evil spirits. There’s lots of shaky camera work with shadows and out-of-focus dissolves while they search the empty building and find a shaman who explains the troubles began when they unearthed the top of a large metal spike while digging for a pond. So, of course, it starts to rain and night falls. With candles flaming, Heo Yoon-Yi and Jang find an explanation of the spikes (yes, there’s more than one) on a wall chart and they observe how the latest visitors died. But everything else is left inconclusive as it should be in an X-Files episode.

This is an excellent idea for a series because it would allow a proper study of the interaction between the pervasive beliefs and shamanic practices surrounding supernatural events, and a more scientific approach to the exploration of phenomena not currently understood. The idea of an emerging scientific curiosity being confronted by alien technology and more natural local beasties is intriguing. So I’m just about onside with Kim Hyeong Do’s apparent lack of fear when confronted by the unknown. He seems to have thrown off the shackles of superstition without the need for a pervasive Reformation. Alternatively we can just see him as a reckless idiot who has no sense of self-preservation. Heo Yoon-Yi seems a better fit although we’re meant to think she was one of the abductees and that explains her detachment and more cautious approach. So it’s a fair shot with thin plots blown up to fill time available. There’s lots of shaky camera work and spooky lighting to fill in the gaps. I suppose I will watch Secret Investigation Record or Joseon X-Files: Secret Book or Gichalbirok or 기찰비록 to the end but I’m less than enthralled.

The Trouble With Charlie by Merry Jones

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Trouble-With-Charlie-3D

The whole point of a narrator is to supply the point of view through which the story is told. This person will pass on all the relevant facts, give opinions, and offer insights. In other words, this well-informed character moves the story on through the plotted situations until we arrive at the end. Except some authors choose to make the narrator unreliable. He or she now fails to pass on all the relevant facts, gives opinions and insights based on misunderstandings, or just flat out lies when it suits him or her. This makes a good game for the author to play against the reader. It all comes down to deciding just how untrustworthy the narrator is. You will notice this distinguishes the literary device from the unfiltered omniscient author who tells us all we need to know. Through the unreliable narrator, the author can deliberately hide information from the reader, or if the narrator gives factually correct reports but misinterprets them, it’s left to the reader to see the narrator’s errors.

 

So here comes The Trouble With Charlie by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) and a first-person narrator who breaks new ground in unreliability. During the course of the book, she’s diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. This confirmed medical condition gives rise to periods of detachment from surrounding events, i.e. she may be physically present but not paying attention. This means she may not be aware of the fine detail of what people tell her. She’s also likely to suffer amnesia following an emotionally stressing event. In both cases, she’s likely to invent information to hide her inability to accurately remember what happened. This can be very confusing to those who don’t know her. Finally, she’s likely to talk to people who aren’t there.

Merry Jones looking completely reliable

Merry Jones looking completely reliable

 

How does this relate to the plot? Well, the Charlie in question is both the husband who has separated from her and lives elsewhere, and the unfortunately dead body in her home. He has a kitchen knife rather prominently displayed in his back and she has a cut on her hand that was almost certainly caused by that knife. She finds the dead body when she returns from from her first time at a bar after her breakup. Although there are plenty of witnesses to show her at the bar, the ME gives a window of opportunity for her to have killed him before leaving home. Worse, she also inherits a tidy sum on life insurance policies (so long as she did not kill him, of course). That gives her motive and opportunity, and makes her the prime suspect. Normally people can explain events, but she has no memory of what she did before going to the bar. Naturally, the police think she’s faking the amnesia and is therefore guilty. She therefore chats to Charlie on a regular basis which would be useful if he knew who killed him. You’ll remember the blow was struck from behind. So he can’t help her fill in the gaps in her memory. Perhaps hypnotism would help.

 

Then she finds herself in danger and attacked by rather a strong man. She’s able to fight him off and kills him in the process but, of course she can’t clearly remember killing him. She has concussion and obvious wounds. It looks like a clear case of self-defence, but she can’t remember killing him. That could be a major problem if, in fact, someone else killed him while she was unconscious. Why would anyone do that anyway? So now the police are looking at one woman and two dead bodies. They begin to see the beginning of a pattern. Like the narrator, we’re just watching events unfold with not a clue what’s really going on. Fortunately, she has some very loyal friends to give her support and, while she was at that bar, she met an attractive man. Perhaps if she went out on a date with him, they could really hit it off and be happy together (so long as she manages to avoid going to jail for murder, of course).

 

The first part of this book is actually quite spooky. For a while, I was unsure whether this was a straight mystery or there was a supernatural element. In its own way, this makes for a very successful introduction to our narrator because it immediately highlights the problems she has in interpreting what she sees. Once we get past that, the book settles down into a pleasing rhythm as new evidence comes to light which shakes her confidence in her husband. She had always seen him as somewhat dishonest but basically nice. This information might suggest he was involved with a very unsavory crowd. When she asks him, he’s not completely convincing in his denials. Some men! You just can’t rely on them to tell you things, even when they’re dead. From this you will understand there’s quite a lot of pleasing hokum going on. I found the whole book great fun even though there’s quite a high body count and obvious danger to our amnesiac heroine.

 

With the one caveat that I think the end is slightly over the top — I understand why it ends this way but. . . — The Trouble With Charlie is very entertaining and the structured revelations as odd pieces of memory return are elegantly handled. Overall, I conclude the book is well worth picking up as a mystery shading into a thriller when the mood takes it that way.

 

For a review of the next in the series, see Elective Procedures.

 

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

 

72 Martyrs or 犀照 (2011)

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

72-Martyrs-2011-Movie-Poster-2

Political history is always a challenging topic for storytellers since, by definition, the current generation not only has the benefit of hindsight but also the power to change the way the past is shown to fit modern needs, e.g. Shakespeare revised historical facts to make good theatre and rehearse moral arguments about the propriety of rebellion. In this film, we come to the centenary of the sequential revolts and uprisings in China of the early twentieth century. The political decision was made to invest in a number of films to explore some of the individual events leading up to Xinhai Revolution and the birth of the modern Chinese state, e.g. 1911 or Xinhai geming (2011) and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia (2011) dealing with a slightly earlier martyrdom. I suppose at one level, this is an example of state-funded propaganda. The modern political need is not simply to remind people of how the Communist Party got going. It also needs to confirm the only reason it was ultimately successful is because it garnered enough support from the people. Albeit the modern party has evolved and no longer makes policy with quite the same revolutionary roots, it still needs to reinforce messages of self-sacrifice and the need for the people’s continuing support for those policies.

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

 

The topic here is the Second Huangzhou Uprising which took place on the 27th April, 1911. Since almost all those who took part knew they were likely to be killed in the attack on the Qing Representative in the province, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause was inspirational. In part, the reason for their fame was the letters they wrote to their families and loved ones before they went into battle. These were later published and individual contributions like that of Lin Jue Min who wrote to his wife, have become classics of modern Chinese literature. Thematically, this was covered in To My Wife or 百年情书 (2011) which follows Lin Jue Min’s life from 1905 to 1911, showing the balance between love for his wife and his patriotism. With one other film already in the pipeline dealing with the same subject matter, the director Chiu Sung-Kei took the decision to deal with the more general history of the lead up to the uprising. Instead of focusing on the seventy-two and having dramatic sequences showing them first taking command of the Qing compound and then being overwhelmed, it offers a more gentle analysis of the relationship between the Qing representatives, the gangs and the revolutionaries.

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

 

The immediate group of revolutionaries is led by Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and newspaperman Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho). They are joined by Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui) who has spent time with Sun Yat-Sen in Malaysia. To raise money, Luo makes friends with Jiang Mei-Xi (Irene Wan). She’s under the general protection of gang boss Fang Hong-Zhi (Wang Jianchang) and despite the man’s jealousy, is able to secure money from him. This funding is also in repayment of Luo’s intervention to solve a turf dispute between the gangs. His timely action disrupts a dispute by disabling a gang leader. Fang’s daughter Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) is also attracted to the newcomer and is a revolutionary in spirit. Trying to keep a lid on this volatile situation is the corrupt Li Zhun (Eric Tsang) who, as the Quing representative, is also dealing with the British in the heroin trade.

 

At its heart, this is a very simple and low-key film. The local revolutionaries grow tired of being told to wait. They know the extra few days added to the schedule are not going to make any difference. They will all probably die in the uprising. Indeed, they acknowledge their role is to be as martyrs. If the people are to be provoked into anger, they have to see the brutal way in which the regime deals with revolutionaries. History shows their sacrifice was not in vain. As a film it’s quietly understated and rather melancholic. Although there’s heroism on show, it’s in the quiet determination to make every life count in the greater struggle. 72 Martyrs or 犀照 makes a thoughtful contribution to the patchwork cinematic review of this period of Chinese history.

 

Resolve by J J Hensley

January 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Resolve

As a reader, it’s quite common to go through phases when the habit itself takes you forward even though the excitement and enthusiasm have temporarily evaporated. You keep turning the pages of the next so-so book, eating up the words mechanically, always hoping the book after that will be better. That you will suddenly find the wellspring of enthusiasm rises up again, endowing the mechanical chore with the interest you always hope to find. The dry patches can be days, weeks or, on one or two rare occasions, months. But in a long life spent reading, I’ve never been without the enthusiasm for long. I suppose this means I have to speculate on what might bring back the sense of excitement. It can just be the cleverness of the ideas in a story or book. Even though the writing itself may be mundane, there can be excellence in the quality of the underlying narrative. It’s one of these, “Now how did anyone think up something like that” moments that just brighten my day. I had one of those days recently — a mystery novel with a murder method quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. That kind of revelation keeps me going for a long time.

 

All of which brings me to Resolve by J J Hensley (The Permanent Press, 2013). I have to confess my initial feeling was one of dread. There’s one of this long authorial notes thanking everyone for their encouragement and help in producing the work in front of me. Even the dog wagged its tail when this advanced reading copy came back from the presses. But once I started on the book itself, I was captivated. This is the story of a man running a marathon. He’s been training for this latest excursion through the twenty-six and then some miles for weeks and he’s aiming to match his best time. He’s been slightly knocked around and is not at his best. So the structure of the novel takes us along the route of the run and, after a note about each successive mile, flashes back to the weeks leading up to this race. In a way, both narrative tracks are a race. There’s the literal run and his efforts to maintain his training regime despite the deaths of several people around him. Obviously he’s survived to take part in the race but that, in itself, was a close-run race. Fortunately, in the cooling down period immediately after the race, he gets to talk with interested parties and, in their different ways, they celebrate the fact he emerged a winner. Well, they say that everyone who finishes a marathon is a winner, no matter what their time.

J J Hensley writing about what he knows

J J Hensley writing about what he knows

 

So here’s one more reason for my continued enthusiasm for all things written. On occasion, you meet a protagonist and feel you know him or her. It’s the credibility factor. No matter what the plot, you feel this person walking (or running) through events says what you would expect in the circumstances and, given your knowledge of his or her background, behaves as you would expect. In this novel, we meet a professor of criminology at a second-rate university. This is a man who has improved himself. He began as a cop, switched over to being a probation officer, and then moved into academic life. This gives him a strong sense of who he is. On the streets and having to deal with sometimes very disturbed offenders, he learned how to handle himself. This did not, of course, prevent him from having a brain and, when he met the right woman who supported him and built up his confidence, he became a good teacher.

 

At this point, I need to congratulate the author because, for someone who has a background in law enforcement and the probation service, this character is remarkably naive when it comes to dealing with students. It seems not to occur to him that these are dangerously manipulative people who will try to engineer events so they will get what they want out of their university experience. In a world where he’s encouraged to engage in mild levels of self-deception, he therefore misreads the motives of many of those around him. It takes us until the end of the book for all the misconceptions to be swept away and the truth to stand clear. I was also impressed by the genuine acuity of both the detectives investigating the death of one of his students and of the senior member of faculty who supported his appointment. Quite independently and for completely different reasons, they are able to understand exactly what probably happened and, in their own ways, to be philosophically resigned to accepting the outcome. After all, with only their experience to rely on and absolutely no evidence, what can they do except walk away? From this you will understand this is a book that has total command of the plotting. There’s real intelligence at work at every stage. As a murder mystery that also gives us a first-person insight into the process of investigating a murder and what follows, it all fits together beautifully.

 

So there you have it. Resolve by J J Hensley is that very rare beast: an intellectual feast with credible characters working through to a satisfying outcome. That this is a first novel makes the achievement all the more pleasing. This is an author to watch!

 

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

 

Boss (2009)

January 26, 2013 3 comments

Boss-banner

Boss (2009) is a very slick eleven episode police procedural which addresses three fairly common themes in Japanese television. The first and most obvious is the desire of senior management, whenever possible, to finish off an upwardly mobile woman’s career. Five years before the show starts, Eriko Osawa (Yuki Amami) was sent to America to hide her away, but now she’s back and the knives are out. Thanks to the machinations of Shinjiro Nodate (Yutaka Takenouchi) she’s not only been brought back to head up a redundant division of detectives but, with a couple of exceptions, she’s been given a team of eccentric deadbeats. So we’re in the misogynistic vein again as patronising contempt gushes down on her from her seniors and peers. At least no-one physically hits her during the series. The second theme is the misfits making good. In each episode after they have all been introduced, they are on track for redemption. It may be one of television’s ultimate clichés but it’s actually carried off quite well here. Mami Kimoto (Erika Toda) is the CSI officer from Hell who has no interest in people and is more than happy to spend her time asleep at her desk. This contrasts sharply with the head of CSI, Reiko Narahashi (Michiko Kichise) who’s obsessively hard-working and full of useful tips. Ippei Hanagata (Junpei Mizobata) is terminally young, inexperienced and naive. Keisuke Yamamura (Yoichi Nukumizu) is old, rather stupid, intensely naive, and physically incompetent even in his own defence. Takuma Katagiri (Tetsuji Tamayama) is the ultimate clock-watching drop-out who shows no real commitment to the notion of policing. And then we have Zenji Iwai (Kendo Kobayashi), a fairly overtly gay officer. This is the first time I’ve encountered a Japanese television series with explicit reference to homosexuality. Sadly some aspects of the performance are intended to raise a smile, but he’a actually allowed to begin taking his role in the police more seriously. Finally, there’s considerable institutional contempt for the use of profiling. I’m not quite sure why the culture is so strongly against this. Perhaps in Japanese society it’s considered rude to use psychological analysis to invade any individual’s personality.

Yuki Amami, Tetsuji Tamayama and Yoichi Nukumizu

Yuki Amami, Tetsuji Tamayama and Yoichi Nukumizu

All this would be quite encouraging if the team was consistently given interesting crimes to investigate. The first episode has a serial killer on the loose. The titular boss is fractionally behind her rivals in identifying the probable criminal, but there’s a pleasing session in the interview room where she shows how devious she can be when it comes to getting a confession. This sets the pattern with Hirohisa Iida the first week’s guest star villain — he also reappears in the final episode for another interesting confrontation with the Boss. Unfortunately, this star wattage and script brio does not carry into the second episode where we have a thin and incoherent story about a man who jump starts a murder on request website, leaving it to the Boss to hold herself out as bait. Frankly this is poor. With hundreds writing in to nominate hated family members and friends for death, the police team put in multiple requests for our heroine to be the next victim. Needless to say, the killer comes, there’s a chase, a completely ludicrous explosion to throw the chasing officers off the scent, and a very tame ending. The third episode is saved by the rather amusing way in which Keisuke Yamamura, our cowardly old officer with the environmental streak, finally avoids making a fool of himself as a detective. His role proves pivotal in producing the evidence to put the killer away. That said, the confrontation eliciting the confession is not staged in the police station. I hope the police had hidden recorders going because it might be difficult to get a conviction if the confession is subsequently denied.

We then get into familiar plot territory with the school bullying that went too far in the past and a victim now back to take revenge. All this is a vehicle for showing the “arrival” of Mami Kimoto, our CSI, in the ranks of the detectives. We start with a note of affectionate humour as our heroes are enlisted in the anti-crime drive. They are to act out scenes to show school children the need to take care. It seems there are criminals about who must be defended against. Particularly those who are zombies — the cast gets carried away in improvising dangers. Ironically, the team fail to notice their CSI has been kidnapped and are then embarrassed into having to track her down with all Tokyo watching through an internet live feed. This two episode element is too long and the resolution depends on inspired guesswork, but it does prove to be a useful team-building exercise and, despite her ordeal, Mami Kimoto emerges a more integrated member.

Erika Toda as the demotivated Mami Kimoto

Erika Toda as the demotivated Mami Kimoto

The sixth episode is what we all wait for. It’s Japanese television doing everything absolutely right. This is a wonderful battle between the sixteen year old prodigy at an elite school played by Mai Nakahara and the Boss who affects middle-aged brainlessness to lure our young criminal into supplying the evidence of her crime. It’s al contrived to come out right but it does it so well, we can forgive it everything. The seventh episode tries to do the same thing, this time with Rei Okamoto as a highly competent television reporter and presenter. It’s not a complete success but it does show the development of the team. Whereas they began by being a worthless collections of individuals, the crisis provoked by the death of a suspect while under interrogation by her team requires them to take sides. Either they are going to remain a pack of individuals or they are going to rally round the Boss and continue the investigation despite the attempts to sideline them. The murder method is reasonably ingenious, but the way the police find and reinterpret the video evidence is too convenient and unconvincing. Again we have this silly confrontation outside the police station without any obvious recording of the confession.

We now get into the backstory of Takuma Katagiri, the second-in-command, as a sniper begins to pick off police officers. It’s obviously personal but because Takuma Katagiri will not trust anyone, it’s not clear how it can be cleared up. However, the Boss is able to break through the mistrust and Keisuke Yamamura inadvertently stumbles on evidence so it all works out well in a rather silly shoot-out at a stadium. We then have a serial killer on the loose or perhaps there are two of them: one crazed and disorganised, the other obsessional and highly organised. Yes, the profile turns out to be right and, yes, we have seen it before in Western shows. This time, the reason for suspecting the right answer is even more contrived than usual making this only moderately successful. The final two-episode resolution gives us the Boss’s backstory, explaining exactly what went wrong five years earlier and what happened to the relationship she had with the man she was was then involved with. This proves to be very clever, carefully playing a series of reveals to resolve a kidnapping by terrorists. It represents a fitting conclusion to an above average police procedural show with, in the end, three strong women emerging from pack to keep the men on the straight and narrow.

For a review of the second season, see Boss: Season 2 or シーズン (2011).

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

January 25, 2013 1 comment

shoggoths in bloom

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear (Prime Books, 2012) is one of these pleasingly eclectic collections. It contrives to run from straight SF to fantasy and back again without pausing for breath. One of the essential problems in putting together any collection is that it can show a certain repetitiveness in the author. Some tend to be preoccupied with the same themes, others write in essentially the same way even though the subject matter changes. Elizabeth Bear is one of those authors who manages to be original every time and, in this collection, we have a rare collection of different stories, each different but with the same standard of excellence.

 

“Tideline” is a rather sentimental post-war story of an automated fighting machine that mothers a young human until its batteries run out and it can no longer survive. I suppose the “ain’t going to war no more” but carry the memory of the honour of those who served is a good message. I could write a lot about “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” but, in these racially charged times, I’ll leave it that this is quite a brave effort to address an issue many people find difficult. “Sounding” is more-or-less straight fiction about the social and economic distress caused by the slow failure of the fishing industry. It’s a wonder anyone keeps going out to fish. “The Something-Dreaming Game” is a rather beautiful story about a young girl who gets an experimental implant and finds an unexpected friend to talk to. Fortunately, even her mother and the doctor involved turn out to be sensible so everything works out in a way that protects the innocent. “The Cold Blacksmith” says something about love lost. Some live on without it. Others look for ways to mend a broken heart. “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns”* is an SF police procedural which uses a murder mystery as an excuse to wander round a future society. At its heart, there’s no real mystery to solve. I thought it was obvious what was happening about halfway through, but the end result is quite pleasing because of the inventiveness surrounding the lifestyles and technologies being described. It works well at novelette length. “Orm the Beautiful” is a fantasy that, in a few pages, captures the sadness when a species dies although, in this instance, there’s a kind of phoenix ending that offers a chance to avoid being lost, to preserve the memory of the songs that made them so powerful. “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe” is a different way in which the universe may collapse in on itself and then press, “Reboot” and we get another big bang. “Love Among the Talus” is a pleasing fantasy tale in which a princess has to decide how best to manage affairs so she gets what she wants. In political terms, this is an example of expediency rather than emotion, although love does come into it somewhere.

Elizabeth Bear asking how best to take a seat

Elizabeth Bear asking how best to take a seat

 

“Cryptic Coloration” is a fast-paced urban fantasy where a sexy magus defends New York from supernatural beasties. It’s all going wonderfully well until he interests three of the female students in the class he teaches. They think he has some secret and, with the casual disregard for their own safety required of victims in stories like this, they decide to stalk him. Unfortunately, this means following him into danger. “The Ladies” is a short but intriguing “what if” from the alternate history shelves speculating on how the election results might have differed had a woman run for the office of president. As the title “Shoggoths in Bloom” suggests, we’re off into Lovecraftian territory with a rather pleasing one-man, scientific expedition to determine the nature of these beasts that not only comes up with the story of their origin but suggests a new use for them. If the last story was a “what if” this is definitely an “if only”! “The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder” is a nice story about the nature of creativity and the role of integrity. The question we have to answer is how we should react if offered the chance to recover the physical abilities we had when younger. Which is better: for our fans to remember us as we were or an opportunity to make new fans? In the real world “Dolly” was the name given to the first cloned sheep. This is an android “who” may also be on a cusp where important decisions have to be made. This is another interesting future police procedural which takes us a little further forward down a well-trodden road. It succeeds because of the character of the lead detective and her willingness to see beyond simple companionship and find a little hope for the future. “Gods of the Forge” also deals with decisions and values, with the need to confront fear, with the desire to be a better person. In technical terms, this is a classic example of how to switch narrative formats to achieve the right emotional balance in the story. At every level, this is something of a triumph.

 

“Annie Webber” is one of these short, short stories that punches above its weight. This is just a wonderful idea, perfectly executed and nicely made (rather like a good cup of coffee where the barista really cares). “The Horrid Glory of its Wings” offers another choice. When a child is born with an incurable disease and has nothing to look forward to, living is not the only option. The only question, then, is whether dying is the only other option. This is an elegant fantasy answer to the question that manages to balance the pitilessness of reality against the rank smell of a process to recover precious metals from rubbish. “Confessor” continues with another future police investigation, this time of genetic manipulations in a mountain retreat. It takes dedicated professionals to infiltrate a camp like that and then there’s the question of what you do with all the evidence you find. “The Leavings of the Wolf” considers how a woman should deal with the death of her marriage. Grieving is a complicated process but with a little help and encouragement, the vestiges of the past can be cast aside and a brighter future embraced. Finally, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio”reminds us of the problems in long-distance telephone calls when you have to wait for your voice to be received before the other party can reply. Overall Shoggoths in Bloom is excellent and well worth reading.

 

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

 

This collection won the 2013 Locus Award.

 

* “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” is anthologised in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois.

 

Jiu – Special Investigation Team or Jiu: Keishichou Tokushuhan Sousakei or ジウ (2011)

January 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Jiu

Jiu – Special Investigation Team or Jiu: Keishichou Tokushuhan Sousakei or ジウ (2011) is a nine episode serial adapting the novel by Tetsuya Honda (as an aside, he also wrote the novel adapted as Strawberry Night or Sutoroberi Naito or ストロベリーナイト). This starts off as one of the better Japanese police procedurals, continuing the theme of women in roles potentially considered gender inappropriate by the majority of Japanese men. This time, we have a very different pair of women working in SIT, the Special Investigation Team, of the Tokyo Police Force. The Team has a fairly specific function in dealing with the response to armed crime, i.e. it blends both the negotiation and the SWAT-type responses. The story starts off with Hiroki Azuma (Yukiya Kitamura) who is caught up in a child kidnapping. Sadly, he’s easily outwitted by Jiu (“L” aka Kim Myung-Soo, a member of the boy band Infinite) who escapes with the money. This leaves Hiroki Azume obsessed by the need to capture the blond young man who outwitted him.

Meisa Kuroki and Mikako Tabe as the odd couple

Meisa Kuroki and Mikako Tabe as the odd couple

Our two heroines are Motoko Isaki (Meisa Kuroki) and Misaki Kadokura (Mikako Tabe). Motoko Isaki is a tough, no-nonsense woman who can and does beat all her male colleagues black and blue in the training rooms. She’s universally disliked within the force but, outside, she makes friends in a slightly unconventional way. Because she feels fighting in a training situation does not equip her to fight in the real world, she goes into clubs known to have gang connections which either deal in drugs or guns or both. She then provokes a fight but never seriously damages any of the gang members. She earns their respect and co-operation since she never turns them in. They become an informal intelligence network telling her what’s going on. As an aside, she’s estranged from her family. On the other hand, Misaki Kadokura is a stereotypical baby doll. She’s supposedly working her way up the promotion ladder, being second-in-command in the negotiating team, but this leaves her making tea for everyone and being the object of male sexual fantasies. In fact, she’s portrayed as intensely naive and not very competent. As we first see her, it’s inconceivable she would have any seniority in the department. She has loving parents who run a small food takeaway shop. She lies to them about the dangerous nature of her work so they will not worry. In fact, they should worry because, in a hostage situation, her senior officers send her into the building to deliver food to the villain. He strips her down to her underwear, ties her up and tries to use her as a human shield to escape. Motoko Isaki has no hesitation in shooting him — naturally, she only shoots to wound. This nicely defines the difference between the two woman. Motoko Isaki is more macho than any of her male colleagues and Misaki Kadokura gets to be humiliated with her photograph in the papers. Fortunately, her parents do not see it.

While the hostage situation is being resolved, Hiroki Azume sees the blond man as the television camera pans round the crowd watching the stand-off. He’s later able to confirm a financial link between the hostage taker and the original kidnapping gang, and requests Misaki Kadokura be transferred to help his overstretched department with the case. In fact, Hiroki Azume has estranged his team of detectives by his obsession with Jiu. They are deeply resentful that all other cases have been subordinated to this one case. Misaki Kadokura proves a bridge-maker and slowly persuades them all to rally round in tracking down this criminal. In Mandarin, Jiu’s name means dove and he routinely kills pigeons and doves, roasting them over fires in abandoned buildings where he seems to live. This gives the detectives something to track when they search buildings.

“L” aka Kim Myung-Soo looking blond

“L” aka Kim Myung-Soo looking blond

As a reward for showing up all the men in her unit, Motoko Isaki is transferred to the elite police commando unit, becoming their only female member. Here she formally meets Takashi Amamiya (Yuu Shirota). She knows she has seen him before but can’t immediately place him. As a flashback, we see him just after she has beaten up a group of gang members. As well as watching her work out in the police gym, he’s well aware of what she does in her spare time. It’s only after they have slept together that Misaki Kadokura uncovers evidence he was following Motoko Isaki before she joined the unit. To say this least, this restores Motoko Isaki’s lack of faith in men. The training is intensive and hard but Motoko Isaki shines. Her position is confirmed even though she seriously injures three unit members who were intent of raping her. When Jiu organises another kidnapping, everything comes together because the kidnappers bring the new victim to the building being staked out by Hiroki Azume and his team. This requires Motoko Isaki’s unit to do what we have seen them training to do, namely infiltrate a building, rescue the hostages and capture the bad guys. During the raid, Hiroki Azume and Misaki Kadokura are injured, two of the bad guys are killed and Motoko Isaki seriously damages the third. During the interview when the survivor is released from hospital, he talks about a cultish group bent on creating a New World Order. They want to throw aside trivial concerns like the sanctity of life, and reform the world by using the binary of life and death to get things done. Love is irrelevant. Social change is the aim.

After the second child hostage is released, Motoko Isaki is appointed team leader and later meets Atsushi Kihara (Mantaro Koichi). He’s a freelance journalist researching Jiu, who may have a powerful backer nicknamed M. There’s also some uncertainty what Jiu’s relationship is with the Yakuza. Taking time off from the unit, Motoko Isaki sets up a surveillance operation. In due course, this means she meets Jiu and everything boils up to a conclusion.

Set out like this, the serial probably sounds great and, to some extent, you would be right. Lurking in the midst of all this is a very strong story. Meisa Kuroki is impressive as Motoko Isaki. She’s violent and not a little sociopathic, but we’re able to watch a slow dawning of a more human side. I think she probably would have slept with Yuu Shirota as Takashi Amamiya. It would have been relatively meaningless to her and, when she discovers he was instructed to watch her, she’s naturally outraged at the senior management’s intrusion into her privacy. The real problem with the serial is the character adopted by Mikako Tabe to play Misaki Kadokura. Physically she looks completely wrong for a role in a specialised police unit which will routinely have to deal with violent criminals. Emotionally she comes over as childlike, an impression reinforced by her schoolgirl crush on the divorced and monomaniacal Hiroki Azuma played by Yukiya Kitamura. They strike me as embarrassingly mismatched. Overall, I think the story would have benefitted by losing an hour of its running time. There’s repetition in all the training scenarios the elite team have to practice and the exploration of this New World Order in the police interviews goes on too long. The political philosophy is all too obscure and ill-defined to be interesting even when NWO emerges from the shadows as a kind of terrorist organisation. But the real problem comes at the end where, in practical terms, the credibility of the story dies in almost all respects. This is not to say that elements in the final two episodes are not interesting, but there’s no coherence to most of what we see. I will not spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that although the first half of the serial is reasonably entertaining, I cannot seriously recommend you watch Jiu – Special Investigation Team or Jiu: Keishichou Tokushuhan Sousakei or ジウ to the end. The book may be better.

Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 or Battle of the Warriors (2006)

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment

418px-BattleOfWitsposter02

Originally titled Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 (2006) by the Hong Kong studios, this was later retitled for distribution in the West as Battle of the Warriors. The screenplay by director Chi Leung ‘Jacob’ Cheung is an adaptation of a historical novel called “Bokko” (aka “Bokkou”) by Hideki Mori. This was followed by a Japanese manga of the same name by Ken’ichi Sakemi. Both draw on historical accounts of China’s Warring States Period. Putting the question of the contemporary source material behind us, we’re into the period of conflict around 370 BC when the seven competing Kingdoms then making up most of what we now know as China fought over the right to rule. In this case, we’re able to see a major expansionist move by the Zhao army against the Yans. However, the advancing army has the same problem the Mexicans had with the Alamo. Their supply route lies through the small Liang kingdom. If this small military threat is ignored, it could attack the supply route at a critical time and disrupt the Zhao advance. The Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong (veteran Korean actor Ahn Sung-kee) understands his invading army must take the Liang capital and remove all threats.

 

When he hears of the Zhao preparations for war, the initial reaction of the King of Liang (Wang Zhiwen) is to send for help to the followers of Mozi, a Chinese philosopher. The Mohists believed in universal love and pacifism but were famous for their ability to defend cities against siege attacks. This belief system is not an early version of flower power, but rather a forerunner of socialism in which each individual was considered of equal value and to be treated with respect. This was the complete opposite of the usual power structures favoured by the Kingships. Instead of simple-minded oppression, the people were to be given the benefit of altruism and selflessness. In a revolutionary attack on the usual mechanisms of wealth, money was to be abandoned and gifts avoided. Status and formalities should be ignored and general selfishness condemned wherever possible. It’s surprising such a humanist philosophy should emerge at the same time as Confucianism and Taoism.

 

When there’s no apparent reaction from the Mohists, the King sends envoys to surrender. They are all killed and the advance continues. As the Zhao army arrives outside the city walls, a lone figure knocks on the gates, announcing himself as Ge Li – a Mohist (Andy Lau). As a political decision, the King surrenders control of the defence to this man but immediately sees problems as Ge Li appoints Zituan (Nicky Wu) as commander of the archers. This is a decision based on competence and not status in the line of command which should have dictated the choice of Prince Liang Shi (Si-won Choi). Disrupting the usual social order sets a bad precedent. Worse, Ge Li speaks directly to the people and gets them to co-operate in rebuilding the internal defences of the city. Thanks to their hard work and the inspiration of Liang Cavalry Chief Yi Yue (Bingbing Fan), the city is able to withstand a full scale attack.

Andy Lau doing his best to keep the peace

Andy Lau doing his best to keep the peace

 

This is a wonderful two-thirds of a film as the worthless King of Liang and his court twist and turn to find the best way to save themselves while Ge Li devises a comprehensive defensive strategy with the Prince and the Cavalry Chief becoming willing followers. It’s also interesting to see the immediate respect between Ge Li and the Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong. They recognise each other as equals and are prepared to conduct a military engagement respecting human life whenever possible. Although they do not share the same Mohist ideology, they are practical men who see the reality in the Liang Kingship and wish they could be elsewhere and pass it by. All this makes the film so much more interesting than the usual military spectacular. That Ge Li gets the common people to fight in their own defence and protects the enemy troops wherever possible endears him to both sides. Unfortunately, the King of Liang sees Ge Li as a dangerous revolutionary, pushing him aside and ordering the execution of the the Zhao troops who have surrendered. This is rank foolishness because it enrages the Zhao. Whereas they might have retreated, now they are determined to tear down the city, no matter what the cost.

 

As a military spectacle, there are some rather beautifully choreographed scenes where large troop movements are seen around the besieged city with some equally brutal moments as the fight moves inside the city. Until we arrive in the final reel, I’ve a clear sense of realism from these military manoeuvres. Unfortunately, realism is then cast aside for the final assault on the city. The small Zhao unit remains hidden in the surrounding forest with no obvious way of putting an assault together let alone feeding the troops and keeping them warm at night without the ability to light a fire. For us then to see hot air balloons carrying commandos over the wall is just absurd. It’s as if the Montgolfier Brothers were suddenly transported from the eighteenth century to mount a special forces assault. I’m just about prepared to accept the flooding of the city with the water pressure able to lift soldiers into the air as the water rushes through the tunnels and bursting up into the main courtyard. But how did our digger (singular) manage to construct the link to the lake in such a short time? It’s another complete absurdity. The final scenes of Andy Lau searching for Bingbing Fan in the prison cells as they flood is hopelessly overdone melodrama.

 

Despite these deficiencies at the end, I’m still prepared to recommend Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻. There’s an underlying consistency of character in the key players that produces the final tragic outcomes. Call it fate or predestination, the fact that everyone loses something of value is inevitable once the basic situation becomes clear.

 

Lionsgate continues its bad faith sequence of DMCA notices

January 22, 2013 3 comments

Following on from my last report of Lionsgate’s continuing harassment on the 18th January (click here to read it) Google has sent me a new notice dated the 21st January. Lionsgate continues to demand the takedown of pages without any right or interest at stake. This time, the company has picked on the page reviewing Joint Security Area, a film made in South Korea in 2000. To keep everyone up to date, this is my response to Google:

“Re: Your notice dated 21st January and citing http://www.chillingeffects.org/notice.cgi?sID=765396.

On its face, this notice is submitted for and on behalf of Lionsgate. It purports to show that the page in question is facilitating piracy of Liongate’s work. Such an assertion is not only ludicrous but also malicious. What possible right or interest does Lionsgate have in the film Joint Security Area? According to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0260991/companycredits, Lionsgate is neither one of the production companies nor is it a distributor. The suggestion that I am facilitating the piracy of Lionsgate’s work would therefore seem to be a lie on its face. For the record there is no need to remove content from the page because none of the content infringes Lionsgate’s rights as alleged or at all.

This sequence of notices arises out of Lionsgate’s objection to the review of Arbitrage. Since its posting, Lionsgate has submitted a sequence of complaints on completely unrelated matters. The law is very clear. It is a precondition of using the DMCA process that the allegations of infringement are made in good faith. I have in these responses put Google on express notice that these allegations are being made in bad faith.

What then is Google’s role? If I submit requests for restoration of the URL, which I have in each case, Google must engage in a review process to ensure that the DMCA notice was properly issued and restore the URL if there is no material infringing the complainer’s rights. This is a quasi judicial function and, as such, requires due process. If Google fails to take any or any proper action to respond to these notices, it is by implication colluding with Lionsgate to chill the exercise of free speech. I suggest this is unlawful conduct on Google’s part and formally give notice that if Google fails to respond constructively and restore the URLs. it must be joined as a party in any action involving Lionsgate to defend its failure to protect my rights.”

So far, the only good thing I can say is that the flow of notices is slowing.

You may also be interested in reading:
Lionsgate continues its bad faith campaign over the review of Arbitrage
Lionsgate and the use of DMCA notices
Lionsgate’s malicious campaign now apparently defeated

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