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Ataru (2012) Episodes 5 to end

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

The fifth and sixth episodes see an escalation of the series from a classic police procedural model to both an “espionage” or thriller type of show and a more general drama. Taking the espionage element first, we now have confirmation that a CIA/FBI unit is operating out of the US Embassy in Tokyo. It’s been responsible for all these unauthorised transmissions that have been detected by Koshiro Inukai (Yasuhi Nakamura), a low-ranking officer in the local police force. He passes this information on, but when Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) tries to trigger a formal investigation, he’s told to shut it down. The Japanese government depends on this unit for support in dealing with terrorist threats both international and domestic. Nothing is to disturb this relationship. However, Koshiro Inukai is dogged and will not accept this special status. He embarks on a spying campaign of his own. Unfortunately, the Americans are not exactly slow to notice him snooping and they retaliate in a rather obvious way. However, it also appears the minders responsible for Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) may be in trouble. Not only have they “lost” him — not necessarily in a physical way because they could snatch him whenever they wanted, but he’s now beginning to assert some degree of independence. It seems the Americans have been experimenting with savants to see whether their unique talents can be used for investigative purposes. Word from Washington now suggests this program may be discontinued. This is putting more pressure on the Americans to decide what to do. As it is, they have been monitoring the cases Ataru has solved and are hoping this will provide evidence of his continuing utility.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Sho Ebina (Yuta_Tamamori) is also coming more into play. The fifth episode is set on the university medical school campus where he’s studying to become a doctor. He and one researcher witness a professor’s fall down a long flight of open steps. Sho sees someone briefly but cannot say whether this was a man or woman. The researcher claims not to have seen anyone. This disagreement becomes sharper when the researcher passes a polygraph test. He honestly does not believe he saw anyone and, even though he might have a motive to cover up the involvement of one or two other members of the research or teaching staff, there’s no evidence that he’s lying. Frankly, the answer is not all that interesting but the episode does give itself the chance to explore precisely which the researcher might not have seen the murderer. In other words, the central character as a disabled man identifies another form of disability and, through the agency of Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Shunichi Sawa, we get a resolution which, while fairly sentimental, may not be unreasonable in the circumstances.

The sixth episode sees the continuation of this theme. This time, the person with the disability has an extreme form of perfect pitch. If she’s exposed to any sound which is even slightly off-key, she feels ill and uses a form of white noise generator to keep herself functioning. It happens that she lives in an apartment block where, two doors down from her, a man has apparently committed suicide. Ataru is quickly into her groove and spends most of the episode walking round giving not only the precise key but also the frequency of the note. This leads to the identification of a possible motive for our disabled woman to have killed the “suicide”. The rest of the episode is then spent in deciding precisely when the death occurred and who might have had the motive and opportunity to do it. Needless to say, regardless whether our woman is guilty, Sho Ebina is quickly on the case in trying to establish a basis on which she might become more tolerant of less than perfect pitch noises. The other feature of this episode is the increasingly precise way in which Shunichi Sawa is cataloguing Ataru’s behaviour patterns. Because he agrees to become his legal guardian to keep him out of hospital for now, he’s seeing him at night. Ataru’s sleep patterns have been changing and he’s now shedding tears when he solves cases. His obsession with the synchronised swimming detective continues, and his behaviour may sometimes be reprogrammed for short periods of time if you repeat a command three times.

Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori)

Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori)

Episodes seven and eight also see the CIA/FBI story developing. Maiko Ebina is invited to come to the US Embassy where she gets a briefing on the project from Larry Inoue (Hiroaki Murakami). In effect, she’s invited to join the team to manage Ataru as a resource. To show good faith, Larry gives her Ataru’s passport. Since she and Shunichi Sawa are guardians, this will be the first step in regularising Ataru’s status. Koshiro Inukai also reappears and has obviously been brainwashed into forgetting everything there was to know about the broadcast signals he’s been monitoring. This seriously upsets Shunichi Sawa who goes to the Embassy to demand a meeting. Needless to say, Larry makes no admissions and the meeting ends inconclusively. We then get one of these faintly incomprehensible internal police mysteries. There’s what could be a murder or a suicide in a local police station. The senior police want to shut down the investigation fast as a suicide but Ataru raises problems. Although I understood the immediate sequence leading to the man’s death and the appearance of suicide, the whole backstory left me confused. I have no idea why Shunichi Sawa’s boss suddenly disappeared five years ago nor why the police officer who died was subjected to continuing harassment. Perhaps it will become clearer in later episodes.

Episode 8 has another person with a disability at the heart of the mystery except this man is like one of these next generation mutants who can disrupt electrical power. Particularly when he gets upset, he can blow up appliances and strike sparks. Since the “crime” our team is investigating is the death of a man in a fire, it’s fairly logical to believe this X-man wannabe stood outside the apartment and caused the ignition of the accelerant by causing the overhead light fitting to explode. Although this element of the plot is rather silly, the overall solution to the mystery is rather more routine with Ataru pointing out the temperature inside the apartment and the presence of the wrong type of mould in the bathroom — yes, it does make sense when you see it all play out.

Larry Inoue (Hiroaki Murakami)

Larry Inoue (Hiroaki Murakami)

Episode 9 sees us finally meeting with Ataru’s parents and getting a fairly full backstory of how they came to hand him over to Larry. In one sense, this is a strong indictment of the failure of Japanese culture to be tolerant of difference. Although the straw that broke the camel’s back might have been a loss of face to the couple involved, they and the rest of the neighbourhood should have understood the nature of the problem and rallied round the parents. As it was, the family were effectively ostracised. The moment when we come to the significance of the flowers is affecting. That this is followed by some level of reconciliation between Ataru and his mother is fitting. Returning for a moment to the theme of disability, there’s a strong theme in all the episodes dealing directly with Ataru or the others with disability that doctors will not offer treatment or support in the community, and that there are no generalised services available to help parents with difficult children.

This leaves the mystery element somewhat on the backburner. Because scriptwriters like to come at the problem from both sides, there’s a suspicious death of a young boy. His mother has a track record of abusing him so, not surprisingly, she’s suspected of killing him. Indeed, there’s clear evidence the doctor who examined the boy a few days before he died, turned his eyes away from the evidence of bruising and burns. It’s not just the disabled whose rights are ignored. The hospital and healthcare services protect the parents from unwanted attention, and fail to protect the children. The problem in this episode is to establish the cause of death. In a muted way, Ataru provides the clues, but it’s really left to Shunichi Sawa to put it all together. Shunichi Sawa also argues with Larry, effectively alleging that he’s been abusing the boy then man for all the years he’s had him in his control. At the end of the episode, Ataru collapses and is left in a coma in hospital. The implication is that he’s damaging himself by using his brain in this way to solve crimes. With just two more episodes to go, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

In a way, we have to see episodes 10 and 11 as a linked pair because, although there are two separate cases, they are factually linked. More importantly, the scriptwriters also bring the broader story of what will happen to Ataru to what feels to be the right conclusion. By now, we have competing claims from the natural parents, Larry the US guardian courtesy of the FBI, and our indomitable Japanese duo. They all start off round the hospital bed where Ataru is lying in a coma (some of the time — the cunning soul surfaces from time to time to listen to the television playing beside the bed and to take in what the local police say about a new case). The parents are getting over their guilt at having let him go and are now prepared to look after him full-time. Maiko Ebina and Shunichi Sawa would hope to share in his life (and occasionally ask for his help on difficult cases). We also discover why he sees bubbles at certain psychologically important moments, and to understand the significance of the synchronised swimming show. When he does finally admit to being awake again, he’s quickly off and running with a car crash which, by chance, happens to be the same make and model as crashed with Maiko Ebina’s mother on board fifteen years ago. This immediate situation looks like an accident or suicide but Ataru knows the car was specifically designed to protect the driver and passengers in the event of fire. Since the driver burned to death, this makes the crash suspicious. The mechanism for causing the car crash is improbable. Worse, there’s absolutely no explanation of how it was managed. That said, once the crash has occurred, the coup-de-grace is entirely obvious.

This brings us on to the final case which is, of course, the death of Maiko Ebina’s mother fifteen years ago. She was also burned in the same make and model car. By coincidence, her husband was one of the designers of the car and knew exactly how a crash might be staged to look like an accident. He’s also still obviously feeling guilty. The question is why. Ataru sets out to investigate and begins by opening the grave and pulling out the bones. He does a quick count and is fascinated by the fact a finger on the left hand is missing. There’s also an odd mark on one skull fragment. He becomes interested in the two photographs recovered from the traffic monitoring cameras. Her eyes are open in both, the window opens between the two shots, and the bracelet disappears. This is all a salutary experience for Maiko Ebina. She’s been playing with the emotions of the families as she’s insisted on opening closed cases where an accident has been declared. This may produce a finding of suicide which might create problems in claiming life insurance or other death benefits. Or it might prove a murder in which case “justice” would be done. So how does she feel when the necessary implication of this investigation may be that her father killed her mother? Curiously, the script makes Ataru sensitive to the effects of the investigation and, to come extent, he offers comfort to Maiko Ebina as the case proceeds.

So this leaves the disposition of Ataru to resolve. If he returns to America, he can be given the best treatment by those who know him the best. Perhaps more importantly, he will be valued as a genius, not as a disabled man whose social skills prevent him from gaining acceptance. If he stays in Japan, his parents can offer him the love they should have given in the years before he was shipped off with Larry. But that’s going to be problematic because what will he do with his time? Maiko Ebina and Shunichi Sawa (and the rest of the Ebina family) offer him a more normal lifestyle. Even the local police are getting used to him and become more emotionally engaged in solving the cases because of his input. So that leaves only one answer in these unsentimental times. And, yes, our brainwashed Koshiro Inukai does recover his memory and takes his revenge (well, in a limited way).

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

The third episode of Ataru (2012) sees us moving slightly closer to a better understanding of who the hero of this show might be. The dogged Japanese police have finally tracked down the source of the signals that keep mentioning their “missing man”. Yes, it’s the American Embassy and, in turn, their spies are now monitoring the activities of this particular police unit. The episode’s mystery to be solved is a man who has apparently fallen into the sea while night fishing, i.e. it looks like an accident. But, when he sees photographs of the injuries, Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is quick to point out that the blow to the head is not consistent with the break in the leg. If he fell head-first, that would explain the head wound. If he fell feet-first, that would explain why his leg was broken. This leads us into a socially interesting family saga in which it appears the victim was less than faithful to his wife. He died while he was supposedly on a four-day working trip, but the assistant manager of the family business confirms the real purpose was to meet up with his mistress. Ataru is on hand to give them the clue to the only shop in Japan using a particular set of stones to decorate nails. From this, a possible candidate for the mistress emerges, but she has an alibi for the night the man was supposed to have died. We then come to one of these genuine “huh?” moments. Ataru suggests the deceased had involuntarily consumed the kind of minute sea creatures that scavenge no matter where they find themselves. Having swallowed them on hitting the water, they would have begun to consume the stomach contents. This would potentially have thrown out the estimate of the time of death. Using this information, the police team is able to pull in the two people most likely to have been involved and, after interrogation, one of them cracks and admits the murder. The precise sequence of events proves to be culturally fascinating and not at all what we Westerners might have expected. Anyway, at the end, the Americans are on the trail of Ataru and are ready to pull in their man when the opportunity arises.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

The fourth episode has us on a small airfield. It’s self-regulating, i.e. it has no control tower and the pilots are supposed to file the necessary paperwork centrally and communicate with each other in real time to avoid accidents. On this occasion, a small plane has gone off the end of the runway while supposedly attempting a take-off. There are signs the pilot struck his head at different points around the cockpit, the combination of blows causing death. As we’ve now come to expect, the senior police officers are quick to write this off as an accident, but circumstances conspire against this view, i.e. it may be a suicide. Meanwhile Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) have finally decided to place Ataru in a hospital. The Americans are following them as they go to the hospital and wait outside. In due course, Ataru emerges and, when his minder approaches him, he willingly gets into the big black SUV. However, on the way back to the embassy and later inside, Ataru shows signs of independence. Much to his minder’s surprise, it seems their man is becoming self-motivating when it comes to the investigation of crime. They decide to observe and call for copies of all the police files where he might have offered assistance. The plane crash does turn out to have been rather more complicated than it first appeared, and there’s a love interest involved as well. Yet again I’m undecided whether the basic factual sequence of events is actually plausible. It does require a lot to happen without there being any obvious mark on the plane that crashed. I suppose, with a heavy sigh, I accept it because the final coup de grace was definitely a homicide no matter how the parties eventually arrived in that situation. So this leaves me with something of a dilemma. The individual mysteries to be solved are not very well designed to fit into the police procedural mould. They really only make sense when you look back with the clues supplied by Ataru, i.e. the episodes are written to fit the clues. But the backstory of Ataru’s identity and what precisely the Americans are doing is proving quite interesting. The general response of the Japanese characters to Ataru is also culturally fascinating.So that means I’ll keep watching it to discover how the plot all fits together.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
Ataru (2012) Episodes 5 to end

Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2

September 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

Ataru (2012) is a rather surprising series from Japan. The titular Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is disabled so, to that extent, the producers are breaking the mould by having someone with obvious problems in a leading role. That said, the way in which people respond to this young man’s behaviour is very disappointing. So let’s start off with the formula employed. Detective or mystery series frequently feature someone who has high-level abilities and some challenging social features. So, for example, Galileo acts as an external advisor to the Tokyo Police Department while continuing employment as a professor of physics. He’s socially gauche, disconcerted by children, and behaves with some degree of eccentricity in other social contexts. So these are characters which balance some degree of ability with disability.

Ataru (Masahiro Nakai)

Ataru (Masahiro Nakai)

Ataru has savant syndrome, i.e. is mentally disabled, usually with some degree of autism, but has exceptional skills in one limited area of human activity. Some savants have advanced calculating or musical skills. Ataru is shown as having a heightened level of sensitivity to external stimuli, picking up words, spoken and written, and seeing the world as oddly coloured images with amazing attention to detail. This has apparently enabled him to absorb vast amounts of information on what seem to be entirely random subjects. So, for example, he can survey a number of screws on the floor and tell that one of them is manufactured in Taiwan while the rest are Japanese. He can also tell by observation that an aluminium tube has a nonstandard composition. Coming new to this series, we’re expected to find such ability plausible. There’s just one problem. He can’t speak to people. In part this is his autism, but it’s also a feature of the fact he speaks many words in English, presumably because he’s spent a long time abroad. This makes the series somewhat unique in having the feature character unable to speak the kind of dialogue expected of mystery detectives.

We’re also led to infer this young man is an important asset for a “foreign” agency (probably American) yet he’s left unsupervised at Tokyo airport and wanders off. The agency then spends the rest of the series trying to find him without admitting to the local authorities that he’s lost. Frankly, if he’s that important, he would be under constant supervision. To his handlers, he’s a known quantity and should be treated as needing full-time management. It’s also baffling he should have so much money with him (as US dollars). Although he understands enough of the world to buy food and has some understanding of scales of monetary value, there’s no explanation of why he should have a wallet stuffed full of money, but nothing else by which to identify him. You should think if he was prone to walking off, he would have an RFID tag taped to his ankle or at least have a card in his pocket with a telephone number saying, “This man needs help. Call this number.”

Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

So Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) is the lone woman in the local police department. As we have come to expect, she’s an example of patriarchal tokenism. She featured in adverts and some video presentations about life as a police officer and has become a pin-up girl. But she’s not taken seriously when she tries to investigate real crime. It’s left to Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) to act as a buffer between her and the rest of the department. From a very brief observation of the scene of an explosion in a factory, Maiko Ebina wants to treat the death of one worker as suspicious whereas all the senior detectives write it off as an accident. When she returns to the scene, she meets Ataru who gives her a number of totally obscure clues which she then wrestles with. In due course, the solution to these clues convince Shunichi Sawa there’s a real crime to investigate. In due course, they track down a critical link in the chain and, incredibly, we’re then told who was responsible. We have never met this person. We have no idea why the murder was arranged. Before you can even begin to think about it. the episode has ended. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The focus is on the eccentric clues and not on solving the case by formal police work. The production also keeps breaking off for what the producers hope is humour. I’m not saying one or two of the jokes are not amusing, but a sad number of them are actually making fun of the disabled man, e.g. in his lack of self-awareness when it comes to wearing clothes in public.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura)

Now here comes the second crunch. In her first interactions with Ataru, he hits and then bites Maiko Ebina (actually, as a character, she’s quite annoying and deserves to be hit). Yet despite not apparently recognising this man is disabled, she accepts this abuse and instead of calling in medical support to diagnose and offer the right type of treatment, she gives him a place to live. If you visit Japan, it’s rare for you ever to see anyone disabled. The vast majority of the abled never meet anyone disabled. Indeed, in this series, Ataru is left at the police station and, within a short period, the staff say he’s out of control and want him removed. Why? Because he makes a fuss when his hotdog does not have any lettuce in it. In Japan, no one ever has lettuce in their hotdogs and, if they do, they keep quiet about it when at work. It’s not an exaggeration to say prejudice against the disabled is institutionalised. It’s only when Maiko Ebina’s brother, Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori — a member of a boy band) who’s a medical student meets Ataru that we have an informal diagnosis.

The second episode is equally odd. The trio happen to be in a flower shop when a man drops down dead. His dying words are, “Blue roses.” Ataru is fixated by some spit which the dying man had dropped. Our savant diagnoses this as gastric reflux disorder but, in a quick screen for poisons, the forensic department fails to find anything suspicious. His wife confirms the deceased had heart disease. The doctor treating him was giving him drugs for arrhythmia. But Ataru offers two hints by a roundabout route. The first is a change in the way the deceased knotted his tie. The second relates to eyeballs. An hour later, we have an admission of murder which, in a way, was not actually necessary. Sorry, that’s ambiguous. The man might have deserved to die two or more years ago, but not because of his recent behaviour. At least the plot followed a more conventional police procedural track with the officers solving the case. The only other issue of interest is that there may be a question surrounding the way in which Maiko Ebina’s mother died some fifteen years ago.

For reviews of other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4
Ataru (2012) Episodes 5 to end

Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell

August 31, 2014 1 comment

Racing-the-Devil-Jared-Mckean--910949-a666f0d661e8086f4655

When putting together a PI novel with thriller pretensions, one of the key considerations is narrative pacing. Not to put too fine a point on it, if a reader is expecting action, being slow to introduce it will result in boredom and a switch-off. But equally, having non-stop action can become tedious. Even in the most high-adrenaline adventures, people do take short breathers. So, for example, the James Bond franchise has developed the introductory blast of action lasting five to ten minutes. This captures the attention of viewers by showing a sample of what they can expect when they get to the climax. The plot proper can then begin and slowly escalate up to said climax when all the major stunts are played out. This reflects the general danger that if events are flashing by too quickly, neither viewers nor readers may gain a clear understanding of what’s happening. Of course, cultural anthropologists may suggest Western people with digital inputs are developing very short attention spans and need constant restimulation if they are going to reach the end of the film or book. This may persuade authors to aim for a mini-cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to persuade readers to turn the pages more quickly to resolve their feelings of fear and anxiety. But the dilemma for authors could not be more clearly seen than in Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012).

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Jared (Beth) Terrell

This is the first of the Jared McKean mysteries. He has an eight-year-old son with Down Syndrome, an ex-wife, and an array of very interesting and supportive friends. The opening sixty or so pages of this book flash by with incidents of note occurring on a regular basis. So: goes into pub, meets woman who has been battered and seems in need of protection; has sex with said woman; wakes up to find himself framed for a murder; makes a bad decision, and is arrested; is beaten up in prison; and then has time to draw breath when his friends bail him out. Now he can begin trying to discover who the mastermind is. Yet even at this early stage, there are problems. To take but two examples, he’s fuzzy when he wakes up after being drugged, but that’s no reason to leave his vehicle untouched. Anyone who thinks someone may be framing them should take the chance to search the vehicle to see whether there’s any other evidence left to be found. To walk away is simply idiotic (or perhaps it isn’t, who knows?). It’s also strange, given the victim apparently kept a diary of where she met the fake McKean, that the real deal does not try to prove the negatives, i.e. that he was not present at all those times. Ah well, you don’t read these books for their logic.

So having our hero back on the mean streets, he has to earn enough to pay the bills and investigate who’s set him up. Although we continue to make progress, the pace now drops quite dramatically (as you would expect). So we’re trying to interview the neighbours and then off to see the deceased’s sister for a little horse massage (no, really, all he does is rub the horse). As the investigation proceeds, we get time for friends and, more importantly, family as he meets his newly-pregnant ex and her new husband on the occasion of his son’s eighth birthday. Indeed, one of the features of this book is the time devoted to exploring this PI’s psychology through the extended backstory that emerges. This makes the book slightly nonstandard. In the conventional PI novel, our noirish protagonist gets out there to investigate. He gets hit a few times, and hands out a beating when it’s deserved or in self-defence. There’s at least one dame that he falls for but, more often than not, she proves unsuitable for one reason or another. This leaves him alone at the end of the book. But Jared McKean is instinctively both a loyal friend and a “family man”. Under normal circumstances, this would mean he lives a suburban life with wife and children. Except his life has not been kind to him. He was married and they have a disabled son whom they both continue to love. He currently shares accommodation with a gay man, but their relationship is entirely platonic. Our hero is straight, but a strong friend. In other words, this hero can only be understood by watching the way in which his relationships ebb and flow. This makes the book distinctly more interesting to read than many more conventional PI novels. Thus, although I might have preferred some of the plot elements to be a little more tightly put together, Racing the Devil proves to be a highly engaging read with a reasonably satisfying explanation of why our hero is the one chosen to be framed, and what the broader motivations are. It will be interesting to see if later books in this series improve on this opening novel.

For reviews of two other books by Jaden Terrell, see:
A Cup Full of Midnight
The River of Glass.

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

Watching You by Michael Robotham

April 17, 2014 3 comments

Watching You by Michael Robotham

Watching You by Michael Robotham (Mulholland Books, 2014) is the seventh book to feature Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, a psychologist, with retired detective Vincent Ruiz following in his wake. I remind the readers of these reviews that this protagonist is relatively unusual in having Parkinson’s Disease. If you have not already done so, you should read the review for Bleed For Me (link at the bottom of the page) for a discussion of the significance of the author’s decision to give his protagonist a serious disease.

His client for this book is Marnella (Marnie) Logan who has not had the happiest of lives. After a difficult childhood, her first marriage was not a success apart from a daughter Zoe. Then she met Daniel, an Australian who’d made a (temporary) home for himself in London. When they married, it was one of the first times she did not feel bad about herself. A son, Elijah, appeared but then Daniel disappeared. Unfortunately, he leaves a big debt behind — he claimed he was in Gamblers Anonymous, but that didn’t turn him into a winner when he lapsed. The debt is owned by a man who won’t take no for an answer. This forces her into work as an escort. She rationalises this would not be so bad a fate. She will earn more than she had been drawing when she worked in a restaurant. And it will pay down what’s now considered her debt. The first real problem of interest to us surfaces when her third client proves suicidal. She talks him out of death as the easy way out, but the minder administers a beating for failing to collect payment. When the vicious minder turns up dead, she becomes a person of interest. So there she is, trapped by circumstance. Without her husband’s body, she can’t claim on the insurance. Perhaps she can find a friendly lawyer to deal with that problem. The only positive she has is Joe O’Loughlin as her shrink. He’s curious about her situation, particularly when someone breaks into his office to steal her file. This brings Vincent Ruiz into play and, against his better judgement, he gets more proactive when he sees she may have been attacked by the man imposing the debt on her.

Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham

There are times when an author comes up with a very clever plot and, thinking that’s all he needs do, neglects to ensure the delivery is a proper thriller. This book hits a real sweet spot in both departments. The mechanism driving the plot remains beautifully ambiguous until about two-thirds of the way through. Yet even when the doubt is removed, we’re still left with a nicely judged cliffhanger of an ending. This is a high quality thriller. The need to avoid spoilers makes writing this review difficult. Suffice it to say that, in psychological terms, we’re dealing with quite rare conditions. Indeed, many might dispute the condition (or disorder) actually exists. Yet the evidence swirling around this person does offer some support for its existence. Indeed, even when Vincent Ruiz talks on the telephone with the person who may be behind all these incidents, the questions remain unresolved. There are, of course, indications of which way the coin will fall — it must be heads or tails, right? Binary rules, OK! But it’s only later as Joe begins to get a clearer picture of what’s actually going on that we come to understand the motivation of the key player(s). In retrospect, this was a tragedy long in the making as a simple love and desire to protect grew into something rather more powerful and potentially dangerous. There are one or two reference to Othello in the text and, in one sense, there’s a certain parallel with Iago’s desire for revenge whenever he considers himself provoked. Of course, not all parallels are exact and, this this case, it’s not at all clear who the Iago might be nor how a role that should inspire trust could become something darker.

Put all this together and Watching You turns out to be a top-class thriller with not only a clever plot, but also a darker twist that comes rather unexpectedly at the end. Only with that revelation does everything finally fall into place and, no matter how misplaced, the motive becomes clear. So we tick all the relevant boxes for crisp prose, fast pacing, beautifully rounded characterisations and a very satisfying conclusion. Michael Robotham plays a long game in this book, reserving the final question to the last page and leaving matters firmly in the hands of our experienced Professor O’Loughlin, the ultimately safe pair of hands.

For reviews of other books by Michael Robotham, see:
Bleed For Me
Bombproof.

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

An interview with Max Kinnings

March 28, 2014 8 comments

Welcome to Thinking about books. By way of introduction, Max Kinnings is the author of five books, the most recent being Baptism and Sacrifice which feature the character Ed Mallory as a hostage negotiator.

Perhaps I should begin with an apology that I’m very interested in the craft of writing and so, with your indulgence, I’d like to talk a little about how you came to draw up the plot of this, so far, latest duology. Hopefully as one who teaches creative writing, you’ll share some aspects of the process of creating this character. I’m curious about the choice of a disabled protagonist. He seems a paradox. His blindness excludes him from the routine of social interaction which so often depends on the ability to interpret visual signals, e.g. choice of clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc. yet his profession requires him to empathise with others under pressure. I suppose the mechanism of communication with hostage takers levels the playing field — he “hears” more than his sighted colleagues — but it also remains a barrier to his integration into the team. So why pick someone with “limitations”?

Originally, the Ed Mallory character was very different from the one that appears in the published version of Baptism. Firstly, he wasn’t blind. Secondly, he was an alcoholic with relationship issues. This version of Ed Mallory actually appeared in the first published version of Baptism in Holland in 2009. However, when my agent had shopped the manuscript around publishers in the UK, they were lukewarm in their feelings towards the character. My agent suggested that the Ed character was possibly a little too derivative. The big drinking cop with relationship issues is someone that we’ve encountered many times before in crime fiction. He suggested that I revisit the character with a view to changing him possibly quite drastically.

Much of the day-to-day writing of Baptism was carried out at the British Library on Euston Road in central London. I love the learned atmosphere of what is one of the world’s great libraries. I would take the Tube up from my home in south London to Kings Cross station. Very close to the library is the Royal National Institute for the Blind and quite often I would offer an arm to blind people who were leaving the Tube train at Kings Cross to make their way to the RNIB as the escalators and steps up from the station can be quite awkward. Whether there was some subconscious connection between this and my decision to make Ed Mallory blind, I can’t say for certain but almost as soon as I started to rethink Ed’s character, I knew that I wanted to make him blind – and scarred, not just physically but emotionally too. His loss of a sense would make his other senses stronger and for a negotiator who spends the vast majority of his time speaking to people on the other end of a phone line, this might be a very useful attribute. One of the key skills of hostage negotiation is what is known as active listening. To create a character whose abilities as an active listener were sharpened and enhanced appealed to me.

Max Kinnings

Max Kinnings

However, when I started to rewrite the book with the new Ed character, I realised that I had created all sorts of complications for myself. So much of what a writer describes from the point of view of a character is visual. But gradually, I came to inhabit Ed’s mindset and enjoyed the challenge of describing the sounds, the smells and the tactile sensations that he experiences. The fiction editors in London certainly shared my enthusiasm for the new character and whereas the original story had been rejected by a number of publishers on its first round of submissions; the new Ed Mallory character proved to be much more popular and Quercus finally bought the rights.

With hindsight, I’m really glad that I made Ed a blind character. While it excludes him from much in terms of the visual signals and body language of his colleagues and the negotiating team in which he operates, when it comes to the negotiation which forms so much of the drama of the book (and its sequel) it makes for some much more intriguing drama. My decision to make him blind brought him alive for me and I found I could inhabit his character much more effectively.

In Bushi no Ichibun (武士の一分), Love and Honor (2006), the samurai warrior loses his sight but, when his honour is at stake, he learns to fight again. This film offers a fairly realistic portrayal of supervening blindness, unlike Daredevil which makes as much sense as you expect from a comic book hero. Have you been tempted to allow your protagonist to learn new physical skills, or to give him the chance to experiment with new technology like screen readers or refreshable Braille displays to give him internet access, or some of the new sensory substitution systems for giving greater mobility?

My reason for asking is my slight uncertainty whether your hero has come to terms with the blindness. While he’s adapted that’s not the same as accepting and moving on.

Other than the enhancement of his listening abilities which his blindness gives him and which he uses to good effect during his  hostage negotiations, I didn’t want Ed to come to terms with his blindness, certainly not in the first two books in the series. Much of his alienation from society stems from his refusal to accept his visual impairment. He doesn’t use a dog to help him in his everyday life and wouldn’t ever consider using a white cane. His singularity as a character comes from the fact that despite having been blinded some thirteen years prior to the events that take place in Baptism, he has still not come to terms with his blindness. His job as a police hostage negotiator and subsequently a negotiator-for-hire in Sacrifice, provides him with some validation as a blind person but this doesn’t mean that he is in any way ready to achieve acceptance of his disability. However, in the event that I do write further books in the series, I think it would be interesting to see Ed change his outlook with regards to his condition and start to explore sensory substitution systems, especially if this can form an integral part of the plot.

You also hew to the Aristotelian unities of time and, to a lesser extent, action. This is a further challenge. In addition to a protagonist with physical limitations, you impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours.

As far as my decision to impose the limit of having everything happen in just a few hours is concerned, this was something that had been my intention right from the very first notes that I made about the story. Many thrillers employ the ticking clock concept as a means of ratcheting up the tension. I wanted to place that at the heart of the novel by having the train tunnel flooding over the space of a few hours so there is a very specific deadline for the authorities to adhere to.

I’m a firm believer in the benefits that creative limitations can bring to a story. As a teacher of creative writing, I’ve seen many writers struggle with the ultimate freedom that fiction writing provides. Often this can cause writer’s block. But as soon as some creative limitations are imposed, often the imagination reacts to them and a story is born. A blind protagonist and a narrative of interconnecting story-lines that plays out over the space of just a few hours are two creative limitations that caused all sorts of problems for me in many respects but were also really quite inspiring. Hopefully Baptism is all the better for them.

Many thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. It has been illuminating. For those who want to know a little more, here are my reviews of the two books:
Baptism
Sacrifice

Sacrifice by Max Kinnings

February 13, 2014 2 comments

sacrifice

Sacrifice by Max Kinnings (Quercus, 2013) is the second book to feature Ed Mallory, the blind negotiator. After the events described in Baptism, our hero is no longer employed by the police force. No surprise there. He more than amply demonstrated a maverick streak in being prepared not only to ignore standard operating protocols, but also consort with known terrorists to resolve a difficult situation. Such independence of mind elevates him to mythic status in police circles. If this had been set in classical times, the decision to seek the aid of this heroic freelancer would be a mixture of hope he would clean out the Augean Stables, and fear he might loose a thunderbolt or two and incinerate less than worshipful senior officers. So this book finds him called up for the first time since the Incident of the Underground. It’s Christmas Day and no other negotiator is prepared to forego the traditional turkey with all the trimmings. He starts off with a delicate situation. A householder has been all too ready to shoot burglars on sight. So much for the notion of good will to all men over Christmas as one intruder lies dead and another may soon go the same way unless our hero can pull chestnuts out of the fire (but only when they are properly cooked, of course). In part because of the hidebound approach of the senior officer in charge, the negotiation is not as successful as it might have been. This leaves our hero less than whelmed when he’s called to the main course of the day.

The core incident begins with one of the joint operators of an alleged Ponzi Scheme returning to England after a three-month sojourn in Switzerland. The return does not signal a capitulation. He’s decided to return to fight the allegations. This means he, his wife and seventeen-year-old daughter arrive at their home to be welcomed by a hard core of press photographers and three well-prepared security men. However, shortly after they have settled back into their fortress home, the three security men are dead and they are being held hostage by a masked man — the young man delivering their Christmas lunch also proves to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up on the floor beside the family. At the behest of COBRA, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room, which is overseeing what’s immediately seen as a major incident, the original team which handled the Incident of the Underground is put back together. Britain depends on the willingness of financiers to live and work in London. If they are seen to become targets for “terrorists”, this could be bad for the economy. Both military and police resources are therefore quickly on the scene. With the press already camped outside, a media scrum quickly develops.

Max Kinnings

Max Kinnings

This makes the line of command difficult to establish. Our hero is now a freelancer so neither fits into the police authority structure nor is he directly accountable to the military. Yet he finds himself at the sharp end of an increasingly unusual negotiation. The perennial problem in this situation is to establish a meaningful dialogue. In ordinary social and commercial circumstances, the process of negotiating is intended to produce a mutually satisfactory outcome, usually a compromise between the two or more interested parties. In hostage and comparable situations, the undeclared purpose of the negotiation is to agree terms for surrender. The lives of the hostages give the criminals a bargaining advantage but if the hostages die, the law enforcement agencies are not exactly going to be pleased and will take swift and effective action to bring the siege to an end. So both sides engage in a form of brinkmanship in which concessions are provoked or offered as inducements. Yet this particular exchange of words does not proceed along conventional lines and it soon appears the point of the exercise may be to make a public spectacle of the disgraced financier and his family. Obviously this does not appeal to media shy COBRA which prefers the SAS to bring a swift end to the unfortunate affair.

With one cheat, the structure of the book follows a strict unity of time in which all the key elements are introduced and then shown interacting to produce a taut and exciting siege and resolution. The authorial problem is how to sustain excitement when the hero is blind and therefore cannot do all the usual things expected of a sighted protagonist. Put simply, there are only a few moments of heroism required when speaking with a hostage-taker on the telephone (for a discussion of disabled protagonists, see Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham). So as in the first novel, he has to move around and prove he’s just as much a threat to the bad guys as an abled protagonist. How this is managed here proves highly innovative and not at all what I had predicted given the preliminary POV chapters. Indeed, the final chapters prove he’s every bit as dangerous to himself (and others) as you might expect. That he survives is a testament to the others in his team, the dedication of the police force at large, and the bravery of the hostages. Perhaps he should be less fascinated by the idea of suicide and more interested in self-preservation.

Whereas Baptism deals with a major set-piece attack on an infrastructure target in a plot that depends on some less usual features, this plays with a slightly more realistic hostage situation which resonates with the current popular hostility towards bankers and other financial moguls. Although less spectacular, I find Sacrifice more compelling because it takes its time to capture and analyse the strengths and weaknesses of all involved. We get inside the heads of everyone involved from the fraudsters to their “innocent” families, the police team, the hostage-taker, and the shadowy people orchestrating the media event (and collecting donations for their political cause). The result is highly readable and strongly recommended.

For a review of the first in the series, see Baptism. There’s also an interview with Max Kinnings here.

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

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