Archive

Posts Tagged ‘adventure’

After Earth by Peter David

after-earth

After Earth by Peter David (Del Rey, 2013) is a film novelisation adapting the script by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith, a species of books I only bother with when I’m interested in the author. Since I’m something of a fan of the series featuring Sir Apropos of Nothing, I decided to read this — if I have the time, I’ll also watch the film to see how it compares. This is the story of Kitai Raige, son of Cypher Raige, the first man able to ghost. At this point, I’m going to diverge from book and film to talk about relevant parallels. When I was young, A E Van Vogt was considered very impressive. He’s another of the authors where I achieved completion. Anyway, my feeble memory recalls the story “Co-operate Or Else” which has Professor Jamieson stranded on an inhospitable planet and hunted by a predatory six-legged alien. It’s one of a species called the ezwall and was later fixed up as part of The War Against the Rull. I mention this because Van Vogt also wrote The Voyage of the Space Beagle which was allegedly the source of the plot for the seminal film, Alien. While I’m not suggesting the team behind After Earth has copied “Co-operate Or Else”, it’s an interesting coincidence.

Anyway, the alien species in this film, which humans call the Ursa, has been bioengineered to track and kill humans. This is all rather strange. In the film Pitch Black, which is terrific entertainment, we have an alien species go through entire reproductive cycle during what passes for night on this planet. The scent of blood attracts them to the humans and light repels them. They are adapted to virtual sightlessness (light frightens them for some reason), relying on a form of radar to move around and detect prey. So these Ursa have been adapted to detect the “smell of fear”. The humans speculate the creators of these predators are themselves sightless, engineering these predators in their own image. As an idea, this is actually quite ingenious, but it seems to me it has a serious defect. The alien species in Pitch Black has multiple mechanisms for navigating both on the ground and in the air. This makes it particularly dangerous. But, on paper, the Ursa seem not very well equipped to move around. Obviously they cannot see. . . but there’s no suggestion they blunder into trees or fall off cliffs. Indeed, once they get the scent, they are fixed on a given “prey animal”, and ignore others around them until the one selected is dead. Quite how they decide the prey is dead is not explained. Perhaps they can hear the heart stop beating. No wait, that can’t be right.

Peter David

Peter David

At this point I need to explain the phenomenon of ghosting. A human who develops a powerful control over his or her emotions, can become invisible to the Ursa, i.e. the body of these individuals stops secreting the chemicals associated with fear. A ghost can physically walk up to an Ursa and get nothing more than a puzzled reaction. This is convenient because the bioengineers have built in some tough defences for their creatures. But if you can get close enough, you can stick your magic blade in through the cracks and deliver a fatal blow. In Pitch Black, Riddick ghosts a large predator, i.e. stands in front of one and is not detected. This is explained. The alien has radar projectors on either side of its substantial skull and Riddick is able to stand absolutely stationary in a blind spot directly in front of it. When the alien moves, it sees the human in the same way it might detect a utility pole, i.e. as a narrow inanimate object. Yet the Ursa seem not to be able to detect a human by any means other than the scent of fear. The tactics for fighting one are therefore interesting. Teams of eight surround one of the beasts. Once it imprints on one, the other seven are then free to close in on the beast and kill it. Except, of course, once seven humans start pricking it with their blades, this beast gets not a little upset and, with six paws to strike out with and a head full of teeth, it can randomly disable the attackers without directly perceiving them. So it can feel when it’s pricked, and it can find doors and walk through them, but it can’t detect a human unless it’s afraid. It seems these alien bioengineers have gone to a lot of trouble to manufacture a predator that’s severely handicapped. When the bioengineers were developing the chameleon-like ability to camouflage to the point of invisibility, you would think they would have given their beasts more sensory input and tracking skills.

As a standalone novel, Peter David has done a good job in providing a context for the main action. We have a wealth of backstory on the ironically named Raige clan — they do get worked up sometimes but stay calm in a crisis. They are natural leaders who manage both to inspire confidence in the people they lead and to show powerful intellectual abilities. It’s thanks to their commitment that the best of Earth leaves the planet and settles on multiple worlds. When the aliens turn up and start releasing Ursa to drive us away, they organise the defence and, ultimately, develop the right mental state to ghost the Ursa. Not surprisingly, the tiny percentage of people who can successfully ghost have either spent generations breeding for the possibility or have been psychologically predisposed not to show fear. They are cold fish and this explains why the father and son in this film have this strange relationship. As an action adventure, I can visualise what this must look like on screen and it’s one cliché after another. This is not Peter David’s fault. He’s just picking up the money to write the novelisation. I was interested in the overarching context but found the immediate adventure, coming-of-age plot tedious.

There are three short stories bound into the volume by Robert Greenberger, Michael Jan Friedman and Peter David. The second by Friedman is the best thing in the book, asking and answering the question of what might happen if humans decided to modify the brain of one of their soldiers so that he could ghost. This is a natural progression from the aliens bioengineering their predators. Why can’t humans modify themselves to fight back? There’s a lot of cod psychology on display throughout and I find myself relieved I did not pay to see this film on a big screen. Assuming the book to be an accurate version of the story, it’s not worth seeing but I might watch it anyway for comparative purposes.

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

The Bride Box by Michael Pearce

August 2, 2013 1 comment

Bride Box by Michael Pearce

My own experience demonstrates that reactions to older people are generally quite negative. Our culture is built on a number of stereotypes portraying the ageing process as something to be feared. This leads to a form of willful blindness. The young prefer not to improve their knowledge and understanding of what it’s like to be old. Assumptions and prejudices therefore bedevil intergenerational relations. This makes it interesting to see an older author at work — I gave Michael Peace a few years head start but we both continue to work and write as pensioners. It’s useful confirmation to the world that at least in his case, if not mine, intelligent life continues after retirement age and should offer an opportunity for society to re-evaluate the social desirability of continuing to treat the elderly so dismissively.

I grew up reading books like The Four Feathers by A E W Mason. More recently, we’ve had books like The Triumph of the Sun by Wilbur Smith. Both these books and other historical adventure novels of their type look at the problems in the relationships between the British, the Egyptians and the Sudanese during the later Victorian and earlier Edwardian periods. The Mamur Zapt Mysteries, of which this is the seventeenth, began at the turn of the century with the situation still volatile but marginally more stable than it had been during the military campaigns to subdue the Sudan. The Bride Box by Michael Pearce (Severn House, 2013) has now advanced to 1913. In some senses, little has changed for Gareth Cadwallader Owen, The Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police. He arrived in Cairo to deal with gun smuggling and political assassination. This time round, we’re still dealing with gun smuggling, the politically inclined Pashas continue to manoeuvre for position, and slavery has not yet been stamped out. The factionalism within Egyptian society remains a problem as different groups try to decide what future they want to aim for. Pivotal is the tension between the core Islamic constituency with the madrassas fostering a more radical approach, and the Euro-centric, better educated classes who see the relative sophistication of the British and French as an inspiration. Underlying all this is the powerful racism that colours the relationship between the north and south, and taints the view of Sudan. When you add in the institutionalised colonial racism from the British, you have a dangerous sea of cultural eddies for Owen to navigate. Since his role is essentially political, he finds himself increasingly isolated — a trend encouraged by the fact he’s Welsh and would rather not be identified as being on the side of the English in all matters.

Michael Pearce as a bright young thing

Michael Pearce as a bright young thing

An early moment nicely captures the ghastly racism of colonial times as Fraser, an engineer on the Egyptian railways, finds an injured young Egyptian girl. Rather than deal with her properly, he takes her to a nearby refuge for sick animals run by Miss Skiff. In turn, she takes the girl to Owen. Since the girl’s story confirms the reappearance of slavers, this directly interests him because it would suggest political influence is being used to give the traders cover. However, matters become altogether more serious when the young girl’s sister turns up dead in her own bride box at Cairo railway terminal. Since her body is addressed to one of the Pashas, the political implications are potentially dangerous. This leads both Owen and Mahmoud el Zaki of the Parquet legal service to travel south to the area where the girls lived. What follows is a very interesting meditation on the nature of the relationships within a family, how that scales up to a kin group, and what loyalties and ties may form within the wider community of traditional Islam. At the centre of this is a young man who suffers a relatively minor intellectual disorder. Fathers are always disappointed when their sons are less than perfect. Mothers are always protective of their children when practical and emotional needs are greater. So how should parents react in 1913 when psychology is in its infancy? Even today, there’s considerable misunderstanding and prejudice. In colonial Egypt, the chances of “error” were significantly greater.

Some of you might worry that this book is slightly shorter than the novels written by today’s younger authors. Fear not. This has very clean narrative lines and carefully defined themes, managing to pack a police procedural, a political thriller, an historical novel, and a simple adventure story into an author box wrapped in a discussion of racial and political tensions affecting a young man with a mental disability. It’s a thought-provoking and very entertaining read.

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

The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

Balfour_and_Meriwether_in_the_Incident_of_the_Harrowmoor_Dogs_270_396

Nostalgia is a very strange beast. Many would have you believe that it’s a kind of sentimental attachment to the past — a romanticised and highly selective viewing of the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I would prefer to think of it as a mere acknowledgement of the volume of memories that occupy the mind. These are the times I’ve lived through, good and bad. When it comes to literature in the broadest sense of the word, I’ve been putting eyeballs to paper for more than sixty years and have seen stylistic fashions come and go. When I first began to take an active interest in fiction, some Victorian and a considerable volume of early Edwardian work was still very much in vogue. I suppose I cut my teeth on British adventure and American hardboiled when my reading really took off in the 1950s. Not that the two are even remotely compatible, but I still recall the highlights. At their best, there was an eerie blend of naïveté and violence. No-one stopped to think very hard about the morality of what was being done. Expediency and a stiff upper lip were the only requirements when deciding what was needed. I miss the uncritical simplicity of those days. Life was so much easier when you could shoot first and, if the mood came upon you, ask questions afterwards.

All of which brings me to The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham (Subterranean Press, 2013), a novella featuring Balfour and Meriwether, two chips off the British block of Empire. For the record, this is the third in an emerging series which began with The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance and continued with The Vampire of Kabul. Seeing two names on the tentpole, it’s tempting to characterise this as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but that’s definitely not what’s intended here. Although there are books where Mr Holmes takes on Dracula, Dr Jekyll and divers other creatures of Earth, then moves on to fight the War of the Worlds and to crossover into Cthulhu Mythos territory, this does not feature a detective blessed with deductive reasoning skills with a sidekick companion for light relief. Rather this pair who share accommodation are more in the Allan Quartermain mould where the response to danger is to shoot it and, when the bullets run out, hack at it with a conveniently-to-hand knife. Although they obviously do think, it’s not what we’re supposed to be interested in.

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

So here comes a rather sly, tongue-in-cheek adventure story set in 188-, with a representative of the British Government coming to King Street to ask for a little assistance with a slightly delicate matter. It seems one of the men who work for the Empire has gone missing. He was supposed to make a simple journey to Harrowmoor to talk with an inmate of the local Sanitarium. Worryingly, there’s been no word of him since. Of course, since the British Government is asking, this can’t be a simple matter otherwise the local police force would be asked to investigate. With typical Britishness, Lord Carmichael doesn’t say what the problem is and our heroes don’t ask. When your country calls, you dare not refuse her. What follows is great fun as our pair ride a specially commissioned train to Harrowmoor. Having established a base in a local inn, one sets off to the Sanitarium, the other in search of word of the missing agent. In due course, they meet up for the big climax.

The essence of good fantasy is that you combine some level of credibility with a complete disregard for reality. As the White Queen fondly recalls, it’s good to be able to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and having been fortified with plenty of food, rather more impossible things before lunch. So this is definitely not Baskervillian dogs nor are we into the Hounds of Tindalos. This is all pleasingly different and explains perfectly why Her Majesty’s Government might be a little reluctant to explain to our heroes what might be going on. I romped through this and now wait for more of the same. Even though it may be nostalgic in tone to me, this is sufficiently modern to pass muster for the new generation of readers. The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is recommended.

Dust jacket illustration by David Palumbo.

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

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield

Saving-Laura-No-Background

If a reviewer is bold enough to describe a writing style as simple, this is often taken as a criticism. The reason, I suppose, is that children write short sentences, often avoiding the use of long words, and few would call their work “literature”. So, over the years, a pejorative meaning has come to be attached to the use of the word. Yet, of course, some writers are famous for the simplicity of their writing style, praised for what critics call minimalism in language, i.e. distilling everything down to the bare minimum required to say what you mean or avoiding the use of any words deemed unnecessary (or redundant) (sic). So in Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we go with a first-person narrative set in 1979 and written in a very simple style. Although we’re told at the end that this account of events was written much later in the author’s life, most of the time we’re left to believe this is a contemporaneous account of his “adventures” by Lee Shelby, a twenty-one year old English major with a liking for Ernest Hemingway. Now before you get your hopes up, this is not even remotely like the Hemingway style. But the approach is similar in spirit, i.e. the text is structured in short paragraphs and wherever possible, short sentences. The vocabulary is mostly simple but, because we’re often on the run and under pressure, the English is quite vigorous and forceful. So the result avoids being plain by virtue of its simplicity. The directness means the plot is moved quickly along and the thriller qualities are enhanced.

However, style on its own is never enough. There must be sufficient sustenance in the plot to satisfy the reader. The problem actually comes from the writing style. If you strip out all the superfluous, that means you’re leaving out all those interesting little details and asides that can add character to the book. Sometimes passages of description setting the scene or sketching the people involved add an extra dimension to the text by rounding it out. And, to my mind, that’s where this book is a little shaky. In essence what we have is a young man driven to rash acts out of love. Without thinking too clearly how this will all play out in the future, our heroic idiot robs a drug dealer as he’s buying 5 kilos of Peruvian flake, and makes off with both the drugs and the $75,000 purchase price. He’s thought far enough ahead to plan where to hide except nothing quite works out as he hopes. The accumulating problems force him back to the scene of the crime and we follow him as he tries to save himself (and Laura, the girl he loves).

Jim Satterfield

Jim Satterfield

As a plot idea, this is great for a back-of-the-envelope pitch to movie moguls. There are legends about people selling ideas but then failing to deliver in the detail. In this case, the hero’s inexperience means he’s completely at sea. The only way he can therefore get back to shore is by relying on other people to help him. Although the first person in this daisy chain is more or less in his plan from the outset, most everything else that happens is through coincidence or accident. People prove unexpectedly helpful and skillful, there are ferocious animals that (in)conveniently maim and kill (yes, there’s real drama), and the legal system ends up getting bent out of shape to accommodate what our hero and all his helpers did (and they broke a lot of laws). I’m not saying it’s all unrealistic. Taken as individual episodes, life can sometimes work out like this. But once it’s all accumulated into a single plot, the whole feels very contrived. Take the question of animals as a hypothetical example. If an author introduces a skunk, the odds are it will spray out noxious substances at some point. That’s what the stereotype does if it feels threatened. For me, this is a real problem. As a backstory, the author may legitimately feel obliged to explain why his fifty-year old protagonist is called Skunk Boy (it was an unfortunate incident on the way to school that blighted his life). But if the skunk befriends the boy and, when a school bully approaches, the skunk runs forward and sprays the bully, the response of the reader is rather different. Now how are we to react when, later in the same book, the author introduces a parrot that can make the noise of a gun being fired? This is not deus but animals ex machina. You’ll be relieved to know there are no skunks or noisy birds in this novel, but you get the idea.

If I can’t take pleasure in the prose, I look for satisfaction in seeing a good plot well executed. Sadly Saving Laura falls on the wrong side of the plot line. That said, you may well enjoy this simple and sometimes quite elegant prose enough to carry you through a slightly thin thriller plot. Your choice.

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

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand

You can imagine how the pitch meeting went. The team goes in with a note on the back of an envelope. The bad guy breaks out of jail and makes a run for the Mexican border. The only thing standing between him and freedom is a battle-scarred veteran sheriff in a hick town no-one’s ever heard of. They talk about nostalgia for the 1980s shoot ‘em up films where lone heroes prevail against outrageous odds. But brought up to date, of course. Modern audiences, they don’t go for the simple-minded shit no more. This one’s gotta have heart. They talk about timing and the potential availability of a suitable geriatric action hero who can carry this type of film. Inquiries are made. He would be interested. They talk dollars and the film is green-lighted.

 

For films like The Last Stand (2013) to work, there has to be a script with good pacing. Strangely, the writing is left to a relatively inexperienced Andrew Knauer so it needs support. This comes from Jee-woon Kim as director. Although this is his first US feature film, he’s one of South Korea’s best directors having garnered praise, a few awards, and good box office on the Asian circuit for all his films. One, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited (2009). He’s a good choice to take a very simple story, string it out over 107 minutes and keep us entertained.

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

 

So this is a twin-track film. We need a slow set-up in Sommerton Junction, Arizona, next to the Mexican border where we meet everyone who’s going to feature in the battle at the end. We also need to establish the threat and meet the FBI team that’s going to be chasing the bad guy as he makes his break for freedom. In the boondocks, it’s another routine day of festivities as the local people celebrate the departure of their football team and most of the town in support. Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Sheriff, gets ready for the peace of the weekend, undisturbed by inconvenient people jaywalking on the streets or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. This doesn’t prevent him from picking up Burrell Thomas (Peter Stormare) on his radar as he passes through Sommerton. He feels wrong and, as we later see, he’s on his way to meet with the rest of the gang which has a vital task to perform.

 

In LA, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is getting ready to move Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) the Mexican drug boss in what’s supposed to be a secret convoy. Not unnaturally, there’s a mole so, to produce the necessary trigger for the rest of the film, some of his gang are waiting for the convoy with one of these cranes with a convenient electromagnetic grab to lift the armored truck on to the roof of a nearby tall building. Exit drug cartel boss with an FBI hostage in the fastest thing on wheels stolen from a nearby motor show. The car itself is great fun and, although hilariously foolish, the way it takes out the two SUVs carrying the SWAT team is terrific fun. Indeed, this typifies a certain sense of inventiveness about the way the plot develops alongside the more routine moments of realism, e.g. the failure of the milk delivery alerts the town that the local farmer may have had a heart attack. Or could it be something more serious?

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

 

Unlike the films of the 1980s which were vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger to dance around the screen avoiding bullets and taking out small armies on the “other side”, this has him as a reluctant hero. He’s more afraid because he’s seen blood spilled and knows what’s coming. Fortunately there’s the usual weirdly eccentric guy who lives outside town who rescues the situation. Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is a dealer in historic arms. Deputising him gives the defenders access to an impressive range of weaponry including a WWII Vickers machine gun and some mediaeval armour — just what you need when fighting off a well-armed gang. Trying to move the townsfolk out of the diner has humour as does the attempt to establish a barricade using whatever’s to hand. It’s a good set-up.

 

This is not to say the film is actually any good. As mindless entertainment, it keeps going well. But if you make any attempt to think about what’s happening, you could shoot the script full of holes. The ending is just extraordinary and not in a good way. It’s rare to come across such an array of poor contrivances to fill the last ten minutes or so as they drive around the corn field, manage to navigate to the bridge without GPS, fight without anyone waiting on the Mexican side to welcome our escapee, and then limp back to town doing the Lone Ranger bit with the wrecked car as the tired horse. To say the follow-up FBI investigation is a joke is an understatement. Indeed, the lack of chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker is embarrassing, and the final arrest is the capping moment of stupidity as, apparently, the FBI can hack Swiss bank accounts on demand. That said, The Last Stand is not pretending to be anything other than a popcorn special and, at that level, it succeeds admirably. So long as you’re not expecting anything special, you’ll enjoy it.

 

Fangs Out by David Freed

April 17, 2013 2 comments

Fangs-Out-Cover-Gif-compatible-1

We need to start out by laying down a few criteria for deciding when a thriller is a success. For these purposes, we should recognise that genres are actually irrelevant. There’s no reason why thriller elements cannot underpin science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and so on. All that’s required is either a single protagonist or a small group that finds itself under threat of attack. This may be with a view to capture the hero or group, or with more fatal consequences in mind. For our immediate purposes, we’re straddling the mystery, crime, adventure fences with vague spy and or military overtones because of the backstory. From this, you will understand we’re not dealing with an “ordinary” hero who earns reader sympathies by being an Everyman figure. Rather we have someone who’s had specialist training and must therefore win our sympathies by having a ready wit and, perhaps more importantly, dilemmas about whether to rescue his failed marriage. If in doubt, our hero should be tempted to stray but hold himself back on the off-chance his wife may return to his side (and bed).

In the classic thriller, our hero is outgunned, often threatened by a mysterious organisation making it difficult to know who to trust. In Fangs Out by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2013) A Cordell Logan Mystery, the “enemy” is unknown. Our hero is given money to investigate and refute a dying declaration that the head of a US defence contractor corporation has been cooking the books and is a murderer. So when someone tries to kill our hero, it’s obvious there must be something to investigate, but it’s uncertain which of those he’s questioned might have attempted his murder. So we’re principally into mystery thriller adventure territory as our heroic pilot and ex-National Security agent struggles to stay alive and work out exactly who’s hiding what from whom.

David Freer checking the pier for his next landing

David Freed checking the pier for his next landing

We start off with the necessary trigger event. As he’s about to be executed for murder, the condemned man uses his chance at a few last words to reassert his innocence and names the man he says is responsible. We then move to the selection of our hero as the one chosen to solve the mystery. In this case, Cordell Logan guides a plane into a safe landing and, as a form of reward, is given the job of finding the evidence to show the right man was executed. This moves us into the “search” phase where our hero beats the grass to see how many snakes emerge (it’s an old Chinese proverb, often applied to combat situations). Naturally this brings him into contact with the love interest. In this case, there are two women who try to get him into bed and so break his emotional commitment to his ex-wife. As he beats the grass, key pieces of information come his way and, with determination and a little unofficial help from a certain national agency, he pieces the information together into a hypothesis. He should, of course, trust the cops with all this information but, by then, he’s in revenge mode because the attempt on his life also wrecked his beloved old aircraft. He therefore prefers to find the villain and discuss matters before the police arrive. Naturally, this all leads to a “happily ever after” resolution which confirms the essential fairytale subtext to all adventure stories, namely that our hero confirms his relationship with the love interest (until the next book in the series comes along, of course).

This is the second thriller I’ve read this month built around flying and, as a complete package, this is significantly better. Both the situation to investigate and the mechanics of midflight emergencies are beautifully captured here. Apart from the section where Logan and Dutch Holland fly off in an attempt to find Al Demaerschalk, Fangs Out is a fast-paced, lean plot which positively crackles with wit and invention.

For review of other books by David Freed, see:
Flat Spin
Voodoo Ridge.

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

The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle

The Marseille Caper

I need to start off this review with a little theory. Over the years, distinctions have arisen between structuralism, formalism and functionalism. As applied to literature, functionalism goes beyond an analysis of grammar and looks at the function of language in a larger context. So instead of asking about the structure or form of the language, the question is more what the speakers or writers do with it. It’s a more holistic question looking at meaning, authorial intention and the outcomes achieved through the use of the given language. I suppose functionalists are interested in the capacity of language to achieve the author’s intentions. So in The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle (Knopf, 2012) we have a book which, in all senses, satisfies formalist and structuralist criteria, i.e. when you look at the components of language used, all the properties of language have been most professionally exploited. But when we come to functionalist considerations, there seems to be little attempt made to interact with the audience. There’s an essential passivity about the text which makes the reading experience decidedly dull. What has gone wrong?

As a caper, this is crime fiction that sits on the dividing line between an adventure and a thriller. Many might say this is a false distinction. That in both genres, a protagonist encounters physical danger, so the plots are basically the same. After the set-up, we see the emergence of risks as our hero explores the local environment. Regardless whether the hero is active or passive, the risk matures and positive threats have to be repulsed. In a thriller, the level of suspense and excitement is significantly higher, stimulating the reader’s sense of expectation that serious injury or death are imminent. However, adventures can literally be our hero against the environment, i.e. surviving piranas and other perils when the plane crashes into the Amazon rainforest. Whereas thrillers always feature villains and our hero has to take the initiative in some task or quest. Put simply, if a thriller fails to thrill, it’s a failure. But we can admire an adventure story and enjoy it because our expectations of emotional engagement are initially set at a lower level.

Peter Mayle looking decidedly distinguished

Peter Mayle looking decidedly distinguished

Applying functionalist methods to the evaluation of this text, what should we be looking for? It should start with an analysis of the plot. The point should be to deliver peaks and troughs of emotion, rather like a roller-coaster ride. Overall, there should be a sustained sense of suspense as our protagonist comes into danger. There can be surprises, minor moments of early triumph, some humour, and moments of sadness and despair while the level of danger ratchets remorselessly up to the climax at the end. Set-piece chases and fights will provide high points. Injuries and the deaths of team members provide the lows. As we approach the end, there will be a sense of impending doom. All this needs to be delivered with vocabulary choices to heighten emotion and structural choices, e.g. simple sentences, shorter paragraphs, etc. to produce a page-turner style.

No wait, I did say this was a caper. That means the most we can expect are swindles, perhaps thefts and, when the author feels the need to kick it up a gear, a kidnapping. So perhaps by definition, a book with this title can only be mild adventure. Hmmm. Well this is the second book featuring Sam Levitt. In his first outing, he earned his finder’s fee from the insurance company employing him by stealing the property back from the rich man who had “acquired” it. Impressed by our hero’s ingenuity, the same rich man now forgives past transgressions and employs our hero to front a bid to build some beach-front property in Marseille. Although there are two competing bidders, we’re only interested in one Englishman whose approach to business is to buy or bully his way to success. When it comes to the broad sweep of the narrative, there’s no real sense of threat or menace. Only one person is injured and all problems are easily overcome. Frankly, I can’t remember reading a crime/adventure/thriller novel quite so insipid for months. There’s no suspense and no humour to compensate for the lack of thrills. The only thing that distinguishes it from the pack is the detailed descriptions of the food and wine consumed during our hero’s stay in the Marseille area. Since I like French food and wine, this element of the book was interesting but, otherwise, The Marseille Caper falls completely flat. It’s not functionally fit for the purpose of being read with enjoyment. The only thing in its favour for me as a reviewer is that, at 210 pages, it’s mercifully short.

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

A Good Death by Christopher R Cox

A Good Death by Christopher R Cox

It’s customary for thrillers to globe trot. For the high-end market, James Bond transports us to hyperreal destinations. When first written, these were the playgrounds of the rich and powerful, the places we ordinary people could never access. Now that travel has democratised the world to some extent, the film versions must present these more accessible locations in a way that heightens their difference. The sun must rise from just this angle to reflect off the buildings, the neon of the advertising hoardings must make surreal flickerings on marbled floors, the waters of the sea must be crystal clear and free from the sewage more usually found floating around urbanised coastlines. At the other end of the market, thrillers insist on more real locations where we vicariously experience more brutal violence and feel the lack of human kindness.

A Good Death by Christopher R Cox (Minotaur Books, 2013) falls into the latter camp where we get a slightly sanitised version of life in the demimonde of Bangkok and then a positively romanticised trip across the border into Laos. The best way to capture the spirit of this book is to see it as a slowly evolving adventure story. As is usually required, we start off in America with a young man coming into his father’s business as a PI. Early on in this career move, he’s offered a chance on an insurance case. The company is deeply suspicious about a claim on a life policy. A young woman has apparently overdosed in Bangkok. This would trigger a double indemnity claim. Even though there’s a body verified by the local staff of the US Embassy, the company believes this is a fraudulent claim. Our hero is therefore sent off with specific instructions to prove the fraud.

Christopher R Cox saved from the creek

Christopher R Cox saved from the creek

This is the ultimate fish-out-of-water set-up. He’s never been to this part of the world before and is profoundly inexperienced when it comes to dealing with people in radically different cultures. Yet with little difficulty, he’s able to talk with the coroner, officers at the local police station, people at the hotel where the body was found, and so on. In other words, despite the lack of language skills, he’s moving with the same ease he might back home in the US. At first sight, everything about the death looks legitimate except. . .

The problem with the first part of the book is we have to go through it all to get to the second part. Yes, I know. I’m sorry. But the first third is rather slow-moving and not terribly convincing but, unless and until our hero resolves the question of the death, we can’t get on with the next phase. Think of the story as growing organically, one part naturally developing into the next. So during the course of his investigation, he runs foul of one of the more senior police officers who seems to be into some level of corruption involving prostitution if not more serious offences. It therefore becomes expedient to leave Bangkok. There’s a travel third and then a final third of straight thrillerish adventure.

I would like to be able to tell you this is a good story. In fact, the author is genuinely trying his best to tell a story that spans the generations and makes recent history relevant to today. In other hands, may be this could all have worked but, as it is, the whole thing starts off ponderously and then slowly collapses under its own weight. It’s like watching a slow-motion car wreck as our hero slowly moves off the map and ends up in a different country. This just does not feel credible. He hasn’t got the personality to undertake a journey involving this level of risk. Even though he acquires one of his father’s ex-army buddies as a guide, I don’t believe it would play out this way. And even if he did end up in this place, I seriously doubt he would survive. The natives in this part of the world are notorious for their ability as hunters and, if they should want to ensure those they captured hung around to see how it would all end, they would still be there. The result is more an adventure than a thriller with our hero blundering back into civilisation so there can be a next book in the series. Why I am classifying this as adventure? Because in true thriller mode our hero is the prime mover who pulls everyone through to the triumph at the end. At best this guy is reactive and little better than a spectator during much of the action. It’s a shame. I have the sense it could have been a lot better but, as a first novel, I suppose there’s just enough to encourage us. Perhaps the next one will all come together in a coherent and well-paced package. Until then, A Good Death is something you should only read if you have an interest in studying the problems in first novels.

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

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments

A_World_Without_Thieves

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

 

As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

 

All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.

 

Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Blood Lance

Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson (Minotaur Books, 2012) is the fifth in the Crispin Guest historical mystery series. We’re off in time back to 1386. In Latin this was the medium aevum or Mediaeval Period which, because of its length, has been divided into different periods. For me, 1386 is in the Late Middle Ages, i.e. from around 1300 to 1485. King Richard II had been crowned in 1377, survived the Peasants Revolt and married in 1383 — Anne of Bohemia dying in 1384 without producing children. This novel finds the King caught up in tensions at the Court. John of Gaunt and most of the knights are in Spain although his son, Henry Bollingbroke, remains at Court. The are the usual stresses because uncertainty over the relationship with France and the mixed signals over taxation.

Against this background, our hero is accidentally in the right place to see someone fall from London Bridge into the Thames. Being of a heroic disposition, he dives in only to find the man dead. He’s initially prepared to believe the local opinion that this was a suicide but, when he takes a moment to reflect, he realises the man did not struggle as he fell. When he examines the body he confirms the probability of a murder. Final proof comes when he examines the room from which he was thrown. There’s clear evidence of a fight and the body being dragged across the floor to the window.

What follows is a highly entertaining mystery cum adventure story. Crispin Guest is a knight who chose the wrong political faction when King Edward III died in 1377. He only escaped with his life because of influence brought to bear by John of Gaunt. He now operates as a semi-official investigator, sometimes working for the Sheriffs or other high-placed officials to find missing/lost property or to identify criminals. He has a young apprentice, Jack Tucker, who in some ways proves less gullible than his master. In his defence, Crispin is suffering from a high fever during the early part of the book and so is not quite fully engaged when he first meets key people. This leads him to begin with the wrong impressions and, as we all know, once rooted, prejudices are difficult to shake off.

Jeri Westerson ready to take on all comers

Jeri Westerson ready to take on all comers

The balance between the historical information and the action is well managed. I’m not at my best with this period of English history but, so far as I can judge, this comes across as being credible. More contentious is the decision to deal with the issue of PTSD in knights. We’re all familiar with the notion that knights are men of honour. They swear oaths to one another and are punctilious in executing every last element promised. This also reflects a practical necessity on the battlefield. If you’re standing side-by-side with a fellow knight, you want to know you can rely on him to fight to the best of his ability until he can no longer stand unaided. If trust was lost, the vanguard would never advance confidently towards the enemy. Hence knights who displayed symptoms of cowardice would be weeded out and, if they could not convince their brothers-in-arms they were reliable, they would be given trial (usually by battle which would ensure their ignominious deaths).

The other thread of interest is the role of relics in a deeply religious community that believes in supernatural phenomena associated with these preserved objects and body parts. This time we’re looking at the so-called Spear of Longinus — the spear used by a centurion to piece the side of Jesus while on the cross. Because it’s covered in the blood of Christ, anyone holding the spear is said to become invulnerable. Whether true or not, the mythology of the blade makes it of “interest” to all the powerful men of Europe. In this case, a transaction designed to place the blade in “safe hands” is subverted by a knight tainted with the allegation of cowardice. If this person could secure possession, he would restore his honour both in court and on the battlefield. The man at the heart of the deal being brokered is the one who involuntarily decides to take a bath in the Thames. This leaves Crispin Guest with the increasingly dangerous task of deciding which of the many would have the opportunity to steal the blade.

There’s some nice misdirection from the author in the way we see each of the individuals involved. With the hero suffering from an increasingly feverish cold, he’s distracted when he should be focused. Although he’s not really an unreliable narrator — that would be a little problematic when writing a murder mystery — there’s uncertainty until the end as to precisely what he’s not seeing. So although I guessed quite early on where the Spear would be found, I was pleasantly surprised by identity of the murderer. It’s perfectly reasonable when you look back but perfectly hidden in plain sight.

I’m prepared to accept the fighting as a necessary part of who the hero is. Honour does sometimes persuade people to engage in dangerous activities. Although I think the book would probably have been as strong without it, it does provide a different quality of adventure about the entire enterprise. On the whole, Blood Lance is very good of its type.

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

%d bloggers like this: