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A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

A Good Day to Die Hard

In the original Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) confronted a terrorist and essentially destroyed a high-class office block storey by storey. We then moved up a notch in the stakes and destroyed an airport. Then we got to blow up bits of New York in outings three and four. A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) decides America has seen enough damage caused by John McClane and he’s unleashed on to an unsuspecting Moscow which is having one of its internal power struggles, this time between Komarov (Sebastian Koch) and Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov). For these purposes, the McClane family is also fractured. I can’t think why but John and son, Jack McClane (Jai Courtney), don’t get on. Anyway number one son has been arrested and John thinks he’d better go and restore ties. Which is why he happens to be in Moscow when the shit hits the fan. Komarov is taken out of jail with Jack (can’t think how the CIA managed to arrange that) and they are transported to the court house for trial. Bombs go off demolishing the outer wall and the inner courtroom so Jack and Komarov escape only to be delayed by John who isn’t in in the CIA plot (after all these years, John still doesn’t have a CIA mole to report on his son). As a result, the planned extraction has to be put on hold and Jack heads for the safe house pursued by one of these unstoppable armored troop carriers that literally lets nothing stand in its way. If you asked for an explanation of where the production budget went, it was on cars to smash up in this interminable opening chase sequence. Oh and Russians care so little for their city they fire RPGs on the streets without fear of the consequences. I must have missed the memo identifying Moscow as the centre for criminal activity with the most unresponsive police force in the world.

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney

 

So then the safe house ain’t so safe and before you can say Jack (Robinson) McClane, gun-toting bad guys are breaking in and they are running out. This gives John a chance to bond with Komarov. They have errant children in common and for all there will be bullets and explosions, this is to be a family values film with broken families mended by the time we reach the end. So where are we with the action (obviously there’s no point in discussing the plot because the only consistent truth about it is that, if it moves, crash into it and/or shoot it). Well, we have our team infiltrate a delightful ballroom which is then shot to pieces by the gunmen and an impressive helicopter gunship — never let it be said the Russians do anything by half. If RPGs are not doing enough damage, you can really let rip with the canons on this whirlybird. The increasingly obvious flaw in all this is that the McClane brand has endowed him with new superhuman invulnerability. In the good old days when he was fighting terrorists in the Nakatomi Building, he rapidly ended up looking as if he’d been through a shredder. You could see bits of him dropping off as the film inched forward. This time, he’s been in multiple car crashes, people have shot at him (with an RPG no less) and now our family duo jump blindly out of a window on the top floor of a tall building. Yes, I understand there’s a helicopter making a nuisance of itself, but it’s stretching what little credibility was left by having them not even pause to have a look down before jumping. “No!” “Look. We can make it if. . .” There could have been funny lines. Well, I jest of course. But they just smash through some scaffolding boards. People are doing essential repair work on this side of the building and there’s one of these tubular systems for getting rubble from the top to the bottom. And they just get out and walk away.

Sebastian Koch

Sebastian Koch

 

At this point, I’m in two minds as to whether I’m watching a Die Hard film or one of the one-person shooter video games. Die Hard used to be all about McClane taking on a “crazed” terrorist and triumphantly shouting “yippee-ki-yay” over this enemy’s prone body at the end (notice the tastelessness of the poster in referring to Russia where the producers hope to do a lot of business). It was a contest which took its time to establish who everyone was and then let the battle commence. Since John landed in Moscow (why did he go anyway? was he planning a jail break even though he can’t speak a word of Russian?) he’s taken part in a demolition derby and shot numerous bad guys. There’s no substantive villain set up as a counterbalance to John McClane’s improbable durability. If you go back to the original, where would we have been without Alan Rickman‘s magnificent Hans Gruber?

 

As it is, the scenes of bonding between the McClanes are just embarrassingly bad. The action just grinds to a halt. Except sooner or later it has to start again and this time we’re off to sunny Chernobyl (where the radiation sun never sets unless it’s sprayed with magic juice) and we can stage the big shootout to save the world from all the weapons-grade uranium the Russian bad guys have stashed there. Terrorists of the world unite, you can have as many dirty bombs as you need to dispose of the running hyenas of capitalism. So there you have it. This is a film lacking all focus. There’s no clearly defined villain we can boo and hiss at. We’re all over the map in Moscow (one of the fastest growing audiences for foreign films), ending up 400 or so miles away in a deserted factory site that could have been anywhere. Sometimes you can just close your mind down and enjoy dumb action, but not even that works here because the three major set-piece action sequences grow progressively more silly. A Good Day to Die Hard represents a new low in the franchise with Bruce Willis almost relegated to sidekick for Jai Courtney (who’s he?). It almost goes against the grain to call an action film dull and boring, but this qualifies in spades.

 

Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand (Open Road, 2013) shows me catching up on the early work of this author — this collection holds stories published from 1988 to 1994 — and thanks are due to this publisher for bringing this book back into print. There’s a timelessness about her prose which, like all the best of the more character-driven literary or poetic stylists, blends what we may loosely call mainstream fiction with more supernatural or fantastic elements. The result is very evocative but in a restrained way. Others who go down this path often end up more baroque. This is masterfully understated, often interweaving everyday experiences with fantasy and myths.

“Last Summer at Mars Hill” won both the 1995 Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award which is a relatively unusual combination depending on the view you want to take of the “force for good”, if that’s what it is. Perhaps they came in a flying saucer or they are a supernatural force. In a way it doesn’t matter. No matter what they are, they can choose people to save from death. We might speculate they need to feast on a little mortality every now and then to sustain their own immortality. It’s hard not to see this as some kind of mutually beneficial exchange for why else would they bother? So many humans come and go from this place without seeing them let alone interacting with them. That makes them all the more enigmatic. And then, of course, comes the real question. If they have granted immortality to those who stay in that place, should they want to accept it? What kind of life is it if you’re trapped in that place? If you had a full life outside and still have things you would like to do, why should you give it all up? In structural terms, the story is a delight because it’s a coming-of-age for both the two teens and their adult parents. Everyone must decide how they are to relate to each other both now and in the future.

Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand

“The Erl King” (shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award) is a wonderful story about loss. There are times when you wonder what price people of such little talent had to pay to achieve celebrity. Those who are lucky just lose their virginity on the casting couch but others enter into more long-term bargains. Here’s a wicked story about a couple who knew each other when younger, then parted, but come physically closer when the time draws near. This is a beautifully judged supernatural version of a long-spoon story in which the dark figure returns to collect what’s due to him. “Justice” is an interestingly atmospheric story that has an investigative reporter frustrated by her publisher’s unwillingness to publish some of her more sensational stories. With her latest project spiked, she meets a woman interested in justice for women. The clue as to which myth we’re dealing with comes early if you’re willing to see it for what it is. I’m not sure the story is a success but it certainly does show anger at the way in which our patriarchal society responds to attacks on women. “Dionysus Dendrites” a short poem about a god in a tree. “The Have-Nots” reminds us that, no matter who you are, a little magic can always come into your life to offset all the shit you’ve had to take the rest of the time. This is the story of a woman whose one claim to fame manages to bring back what was lost — remarkably, it was the Elvis connection that did the trick.

“In the Month of Athyr” is another coming-of-age story, this time in a science fiction setting exploring sex and sexuality, asking whether gender relations would be improved by the introduction of a third sex. This would remove the necessity for men to couple with women and leave them to a better, less troubled life. But what of this created creature? It’s only function in life is to satisfy men. No sense or intelligence is required. It’s purely functional and, even to an essentially mindless beast, deeply unsatisfying. “Engels Unaware” is a straight political allegory explaining the forces behind the Black Monday collapse and offering hope for impoverished temp office workers everywhere. “The Bacchae” is also an extended allegory, suggesting there might (or should) come a time when women everywhere should take up the sword and dispose of as many of the men as possible. This might not be very practical in terms of perpetuating the species but, as a matter of revenge for centuries of abuse, it might make them feel better for a while. “Snow on Sugar Mountain” flirts with sentimentality as a newly orphaned boy strikes up a relationship with an old astronaut dying of cancer. Yet despite this, there’s a magic about the story which transcends the threatening mawkishness and ends with a note of quiet optimism as the boy reaches an accommodation with himself and decides what he would like to become.

“On the Town Route” is another of the spot the myth(s) stories as our young couple drop out of the world of responsibility and join in the subculture off the beaten track where ice cream is the real currency. The result is a slow collision between realism and the world of magic where seasons change and some may call out in song to others for company during the winter months. Which brings us the the last two stories in the collection and the first two stories she published. “The Boy in the Tree” is a rather curious story about a girl who is going through testing as a potential weapon. She has been genetically modified and the point of the testing is to determine what if any powers she has developed. This would be a very lonely existence if there was no-one to share the pain. “Prince of Flowers” is a more traditional supernatural story of a kleptomaniac working in a museum who acquires things for her home. This is not a problem until she comes across a doll. Although there are one or two weak links, Last Summer at Mars Hill remains a very fine collection by a young author who has matured into one of the most consistently engaging authors. It has been fascinating to see the first literary seeds planted and this represents very good value to anyone interested in character-driven fantasy and science fiction.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Hand, see:
Available Dark
Errantry: Strange Stories

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

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010) is one of the better source novels. Sometimes the plot ideas just come together with a simple and credible motive for the first killing and a very elegant method of murder when the opportunity presents itself. Thereafter the deaths that follow show the killer(s) attempting to cover tracks and avoid detection. For these purposes there’s always at least one person who’s seen something incriminating and/or is in possession of information that would reveal the identity of the killer(s). The perennial problem for anyone who writes detective novels in the Golden Age tradition is to maintain some degree of credibility in the plots. Many resort to complexity, thinking the intricacy of the mechanisms substitutes for the need for simple elegance. Others feel the need for variation. Instead of it always being the butler that did it, everyone in the cast of characters must take their turn. So the writers defy plot logic in order the achieve the result they believe will be most surprising to their readers.

So where are we with this third version of the novel to be produced? Having the advantage of two previous adaptations to study, Kevin Elyot has wisely picked the best bits and added one scene which is rather cunning. For once, the core of the original is left intact, and the result is all the better for it. However, this is not to say the final script we see on the screen is a complete success. By modern standards, Agatha Christie’s novels are short. Publishers today think that quantity is quality. So if the original were to be brought to the screen unadorned, it almost certainly would not fill the designated running time at about 90 minutes (leaving plenty of space for ads to bulk it out to a nominal two hours). Even with added material, there’s considerable padding which fills the screen amiably but does not advance the plot with any real enthusiasm. While not blaming the producers for working to their brief, the show as we see it could benefit from losing about 15 minutes. Although it’s always sad to see one character’s part cut back, the role of Dolly Bantry (Joanna Lumley) is overdone. It’s a good double act with Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), but it also jars since this repeats her appearance in this role from The Body in the Library when she did the same act with Geraldine McEwan.

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

Joanna Lumley and Julia McKenzie

This leads us to consider what’s added to the original. The major element comes from borrowing the film set idea from The Mirror Crack’d film adaptation which has Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) convinced someone has poisoned her coffee. Also from the film, Jane Marple’s foot is injured which leaves her housebound for the early part of the film and forces us to sit through Dolly Bantree giving a guided tour to the renovated Hall. Into the midst of all this strides Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville) who’s under instructions from his superiors at the Yard to co-operate with Miss Marple whose reputation has now been established as beyond reproach. He and his sergeant are the comic relief as they wander round trying to establish what it was Marina Gregg saw that left her so transfixed when greeting those entering the VIP area. The one original albeit minor addition is Marina Gregg visiting her son at a local care facility. This rather cleverly makes her seem a more human and tragic figure. Up to this point, she’s seen largely as an actress having trouble with her nerves and attention-seeking which makes her somewhat unsympathetic. Frankly you can understand why most of the people around her would have been queuing up to dispose of her.

I remain unsure whether this adaptation is better because Miss Marple saves one of the victims in the novel. When you have a killer on the loose and there are already two bodies, why not add the third? That said the ending retains the original equivocal nature. The way this is put together makes the suicide of the killer slightly more credible. Although it does remain open for the interpretation one other person might have administered the fatal dose. When you put all this together, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is the best of the current adaptations so far. Given the poor standard, this is not saying much, but you do have the sense this was a better effort to capture the essence of the Agatha Christie original rather than try to rewrite in a way to make it fit modern expectations and sensibilities.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel and Gretel witch hunters

The important thing to learn about killing witches is that they don’t like it when you set their collective ass on fire. Or, to put it another way, when film-makers set out to do fairy stories, they’d better do it with a sense of humour or the film will die on its ass. So here we go with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Our orphaned brother and sister team, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), are cast into the roles of protectors of the innocent and specialist witch exterminators. For the purposes of this film, they are hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to deal with a rash of disappearances. Children, whose faces are plastered on to the local milk bottles (the film is making an effort to mirror contemporary sensibilities, particularly through Gretel’s willingness to swear like a trooper in this pre-Enlightenment, postmodern version of a Germanic township before the electric lightbulb, but not the milk bottle, has been invented) have been spirited away in anticipation of a “blood moon” event due in three days time (always give your heroes a deadline — pun intended). So our heroes go off into the nearest pub to mingle and pick up the local gossip which enables them to meet Ben (Thomas Mann) their biggest fan. This is the ultimate nerd who’s been obsessively collecting their press clippings and now oozes enthusiasm in the hope of getting them to sign his book. Meanwhile Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare), the spooky local witchfinder with Wild West aspirations to greatness in law enforcement, is paying the greedy rubes to form a posse and go out searching for the missing children at night. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but they always say food tastes better when it walks into the forest fresh.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton ready for battle

 

Now a few thoughts about the backstory. Isn’t it just weird when a father takes his two children off into the woods and, after ensuring they are thoroughly lost, blows out the candle in his lantern and disappears? And all that “gingerbread” the witch had Hansel eat. . . That would give him a really bad case of diabetes, wouldn’t it? And why would the children be immune to the spells cast by the witches they now hunt as adults? Hmmm. Some deep mysteries on display here including where the insulin is coming from to keep Hansel alive and how come they’ve developed this array of firearms before their time. Ah, such are the problems when you take your fairy stories into a kind of steampunk fantasy version of history. Everything gets all mixed up. And, so long as it’s all done with a sense of style and fun, we go along for the ride. Which brings me to the nub of the problem. At its heart, this is a straightforward action adventure with two heroes rescuing twelve children from some bad witches. So what market is this simple story aiming at? Obviously not the children’s market because there a fairly consistent pattern of swearing and some of the violence is fairly graphic. It’s not played for shock value as a horror movie. There are jokes and no attempts to produce boo moments. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Shoot this witch, decapitate that one.

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

Peter Stormare and Pihla Viitala ready for the execution

 

As an aside, this is a witch-heavy film which makes me wonder what a film has to do to be considered misogynistic. The aim of the script is to show us violence against women on a fairly epic scale. Both the good and the bad females come in for a steady battering or eviscerating as the minutes tick by. All the major women are killed with the exception of Gretel. She gets to be an honorary man, swearing like it’s about to go out of fashion, senselessly violent, and wandering off with the three surviving men at the end to kill more women (none of whom get an open casket funeral when she’s finished with them). What does it say about a film when the only woman who survives does so at the price of killing as many other women as she can?

 

Then, of course, we come to the “love interests”. Gretel has the nerd and Edward (Derek Mears) a troll, in hot pursuit, i.e. she doesn’t get anyone normal to lust after her. Hansel is very taken by Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young lady accused of being a witch. They have a very chaste encounter in the woods for all the partial nudity. Yet Hansel seems strangely unaffected by this sexual encounter. He’s one of these love ‘em and leave ‘em types who seems uninterested in the romantic side of love. Which leaves us with Muriel (Famke Janssen) the ringleader of the coven who doesn’t have anyone to love but is able to do all the usual witchy things like fly around on bits of twig, cast spells, and look entirely human when she feels the need. And herein lies the real failure to engage the audience.

Famke Janssen going witchy

Famke Janssen going witchy

 

I’m all for magic systems that work. That’s the lynchpin of true fantasy. I also have no problem with black and white systems to use the magical force. It seems eminently reasonable that if there’s a source of magic available to people with the right sensitivities, they should be able to choose how to use it. But this film fails to develop any kind of coherent explanation of who witches are and, more importantly, whether they pass on their powers to their children. Indeed, the characterisation of witches is almost at the level of a cartoon or comic book. They gibber, caper around and fight when cornered. There’s very little effort to make them frightening. They’re just there and because pesky humans can overpower the weaker members of the coven, they want to develop the ability to resist fire. That way, they can walk away from the burning as soon as the retaining ropes are destroyed by the flames. I suppose this means they can already withstand the removal of head and/or heart, being pulled apart by four strong horses, and so on (and that no-one uses chains to hold them in the fire).

 

Yet, despite all these manifest failures, this is not a bad film. It’s just a film that fails to realise its potential. There’s an underlying sense of fun about it and, with a running time (not counting the extended opening and closing credits, of about 80 minutes, it knows when to quit before we all run out of patience. I suppose this means, in modern terms, it’s not very good value for money if you walk through the cinema door at full price, but I’ve watched the DVD as a rental and it’s excellent value. For the record, it seems to have collected $225 million at the box office on a production budget of $50 million. Since that represents a profit before the downloads and DVD sales come in, there’s already talk of a sequel. I’m not sure this would be a good idea but you can’t argue with the profit-driven when they scent more profit. Hence, if you can access Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for a few dollars, lay in some popcorn and prepare for a blast of fun brainlessness.

 

The Keeper of Hands by J Sydney Jones

May 27, 2013 2 comments

The Keeper of Hands

The Keeper of Hands by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2013) A Viennese Mysteries Novel is the fourth in the series featuring Advokat Karl Werthen who’s disconcerted to learn his father may be acquiring a house close to his in the countryside around Vienna. Distracting him, he’s indirectly approached by Frau Josephine Mutzenbacher to investigate the murder of one of the prostitutes working in her justly famous high-class brothel. The young woman who looked thirteen to appeal to clients of that persuasion has been murdered, her body found in a nearby park. Having talked with the Madame, her brother and the girl who shared a bedroom with the victim, our hero sets off to track down Peter Altenberg, a man he’s recognised as one of the victim’s clients, an eccentric by virtue of his class (if he’d been poor, he might have been considered insane). From him, the trail of breadcrumbs leads to Arthur Schnitzler, the writer and playwright who may have upset some of the military with his latest play. He’s recovering from a beating and begs our hero to add the identification of his attacker to his list of things to do. It’s therefore fortuitous that Doktor Hanns Gross is free to offer a helping hand and the benefit of his experience as a criminologist. Then along comes Frau von Suttner. Our hero’s reputation as an investigator is suddenly bringing him more work than he can comfortably fit into his lifestyle so his wife and secretary take on that task. Then the investigators uncover a connection between the dead prostitute and Count von Ebersdorf who, by coincidence is also recently dead: of food poisoning. He was something “sketchy” in the government, i.e. a spy.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones

Fin-de-siècle Vienna has always been considered central in the manoeuverings between power blocks. This reflects both its geographical location and its cultural and political importance. The rise of Modernism in the latter part of the nineteenth century produced a crisis for liberalism and laid the foundations for the Europe we know today through the work of great minds like Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, and others. It was a city which produced extremes of optimism and pessimism — a society in flux and, more often than not, resigned to failure, a fact seen in its virulent anti-Semitism and the political disputes between the different nationalities that came together in the city. Spying was a way of life.

From this introduction, you will realise this book is like Vienna, i.e. it sits on the fault lines between different genres. It is, in the same breath, a murder mystery, a conventional thriller, an espionage thriller with political overtones, and a historical novel. As a picture of a city in times gone by, this is a remarkable technical achievement. Too often authors are tempted to show off their knowledge of the place and its history. Just think of all the hours of research that go into writing books like this and admire the self-discipline of the author in interweaving just enough to give us the flavour of the place without submerging us with detail. Then as to the shape of mystery itself, we start off along the conventional line of following the progress of the investigation into the murder of the prostitute, looking over the shoulders of the investigation team as it pushes forward. Then we divide the point of view and see the scene from the other side of the fence. With the context for the murder(s) starting to come into view, we have the pleasure of watching all the disparate elements coming together in a most elegantly constructed plot.

The title is a reference to the barbaric practice of cutting off the hands of slaves who were less than active in their work. Since those responsible for enforcing discipline were only paid by results, a designated officer had to keep the hands and dispense payment when it fell due. In this novel it’s a reference to the signature for our serial killer. All of which leaves me full of praise for The Keeper of Hands. It contrives to be a historical novel with surprisingly modern resonances in the current rivalry between the branches of different intelligence services. It’s a winner!

For reviews of other books by J Sydney Jones, see:
The German Agent
A Matter of Breeding
Ruin Value.

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

Roachkiller and Other Stories by R Narvaez

Roachkiller

When you read a PI novel like those involving Marlowe, it’s not unusual to have someone sneak up on our hero and knock him out with a sap blackjack blow to the back of the head. He never sees it coming and wakes up, stinking with gin and lying next to a dead body. Well, Roachkiller and Other Stories by R Narvaez (Beyond the Page, 2012) managed the same thing for me as a reader (the gin was diluted with tonic and no dead body, fortunately). When you start a book by an author new to you, there’s hope in your heart. Except this time, the experience is quite stunning. Eight of these ten are terrific stories. Even in marginal failure, the stories have a precise narrative economy. All are told in an efficient, stripped-down noir style and embrace the tough side of life with bland acceptance. Whereas others sensationalise for effect, this author gives us unadorned grittiness and leaves any moral judgement to us. One of these stories is original although the author does confess to having tweaked the text of those already published. The only downside to this ebook collection is that it’s short. Except I suppose it’s a good thing that the author left me wanting more.

R Narvaez

R Narvaez

“In the Kitchen with Johnny Albino” is about life choices. There’s nothing you can do about the basics of biology. If you will insist on sleeping with men and not taking precautions, pregnancy usually follows. The life already tough with one child is about to get tougher with another on the way. So when you’re in that situation, what do you do? You could go back to Puerto Rico or you could take a risk and run a numbers book. That would be empowering so long as the established players looked the other way. This is a pleasingly elegant story about a lady who discovers a strength she’d not expected. We’re left uncertain how it will all turn out but at least satisfied she’s taken the first steps. “Juracán” is the name given to the god of chaos and disorder by the Taino Indians in Puerto Rico. This plot demonstrates the old adage that if you roll with the blows, you arrive at the end of the fight with minimal damage. Of course, this requires you to stay calm when all around you are excited, particularly if there’s a hurricane coming in your direction. The man who earned the name “Roachkiller” is a walking hurricane who learned his lesson well and has no intention of going back to jail. Normally this would mean avoiding the company of other criminals and not committing further offences. This man has a slightly different strategy. “GhostD” captures another life choice. This time we’re travelling with a man who has a desk job with a private security company. He’s got a quiet life dealing with ID theft but then someone has to ask for his help. And one thing just leads to another as the man he’s looking for turns up dead. So what’s a desk jockey to do? “Santa’s Little Helper” reminds us the old established employees are tough and the newcomers are inexperienced, particularly when it comes to running.

“Unsynchronicity” teaches us that when bad stuff happens, it happens and, in short order, it keeps on happening in “Ibarra Goes Down” as a man on a mission to Australia finds an urgent need to defend himself when the fridge door opens. “Watching the Iguanas” takes us into the future and shows us some people still have to live from one drink or one meal to the next. Such a life teaches you to keep going as long as you can and reminds us to carry a snack in case of need. “Rough Night in Toronto” shows us a future in which androids get to play an active part in life. Little changes when it comes to criminal activity except they’re harder to kill. Finally, “Zinger” has a different take on an execution that doesn’t quite work out the way everyone expects. Taking the overview, Roachkiller and Other Stories is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award for Best eBook – Fiction and well worth reading if you enjoy stories with a noir edge and a sometimes vicious sense of humour.

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

Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)

Marple Julia McKenzie

You see this is all the fault of Anthony Hope. I suppose not many of you out there will remember this author, but he was mildly famous when I was growing up. Although, truth be told, his reputation did rather rest on just two books: The Prisoner of Zenda and its sequel Rupert of Hentzau. Notice the names of the fictitious countries. Authors then had the same problem as authors now. They had to set their stories in places that resonated with mystery, romance and excitement (although not necessarily in that order). To this end, they either invented countries like Ruritania or set their stories in countries that sounded like one of these supposedly exotic places sandwiched between the Europe we all knew and the Russian expanse of which we knew little. Today, to avoid upsetting allies, dangerous gangsters or terrorists come from North Korea or Dagestan or somewhere obscure. Anyway, when we come to a young author sitting down in the early 1920s, she would likely think her book had to involve people and intrigue over places like Herzoslovakia and feature characters with names like Prince Michael Obolovitch, Count Stylptitch, and so on. That’s where we more formally enter into the novel titled The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie, now adapted as Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010).

This young author did rather churn out potboiler thriller novels with more than a suggestion of romance about them. Some are, by any modern standards, diabolically bad. At the time, they were considered full of excitement, romance and mystery (although not necessarily in that order). If you were to take a measuring gauge with some moderately objective pretensions, you might conclude this novel is by no means the worst of this type of novel but, if you tried to put it on the screen as written, today’s audience would curl up and die. This revenant from 1925 must therefore be recast so that we may adsorb its substance without being bored to tears by its delight in the politics and social niceties of the day.

Edward Fox

Edward Fox

The first step, of course, is to abandon the redoubtable Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard and the amateur sleuth, Anthony Cade, in favour of Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) with an unusually silent sidekick called Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane). The only redeeming feature about this latter character is that’s he’s forewarned about Miss Marple who’s been showing up his colleagues as barely competent. So he immediately sets out to avoid the same fate by first listening to her and then arresting the wrong man — a ploy guaranteed to energise the old biddy and get her into top gear to save the innocent one destined for the romantic ending. At this point we must sympathise with Paul Rutman who was paid to write a new mystery. Even at the best of times, it’s difficult to write something to appease the purists while entertaining those new to the title. This is particularly difficult and, under the circumstances, the simplification of the plot to centre on the titular country house is sensible. The opening sections are also moderately well handled but, as we advance through into the broader part of the mystery, the initial glamour is lost and what remains is stolid, confusing and unrealistic.

As an aside, if the production company ever gets around to adapting The Seven Dials Mystery, I hope they remember one of the characters in that later book is now the murderer in this screen adaptation. More judicious rewriting and renaming will be required to avoid confusion. Anyway, let’s not worry about what may never happen. What happens in this story? Well, a group of people come to Chimneys which, for the record, is filmed at Hatfield Hall and Knebworth House. This decaying pile with the leaking roof is owned by a disgraced Lord Caterham (Edward Fox) and hunted by the emergent National Trust which wants to save it for the nation. There’s a high-level political meeting with an Austrian Count who ends up dead in a secret passageway. There’s also a poisoning and other minor excitements, some historical. The identity of the murderer is obscured by changing the apparent time of the shooting. The method used is mildly ingenious and the clue in plain sight is not completely unfair. It’s just incredible. No-one would actually be able to see it. But if we ignore this fact and we have the kind of mind capable of making intuitive leaps to the truth, it’s obvious. There’s also a dire coincidence and one of these self-sacrificing people who decides to cover up the killer’s identity. And did I mention there’s a missing diamond but that’s not the only jewel hidden in Chimneys.

The upshot of all this is that Miss Marple unmasks the killer, finds the diamond, identifies the real jewel hidden in the wall, and sets true love on its rocky path to the future — and all in ninety minutes. No mean feat for our amateur sleuth. All I can say about Marple: The Secret of Chimneys is that it looked good and Jula McKenzie does her best to be Marple-like. Everything else about it is an otherwise competent cast being given increasingly silly things to say and do. As we move into 2010, this series shows no sign of lifting itself off the rock bottom it had reached in 2009.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

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