NYPD Puzzle by Parnell Hall (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the fifteenth Puzzle Lady Mysteries featuring Cora Felton. If you’ve read the previous fourteen, this is more of the same and you’ll no doubt pick this up, charge through it, and emerge satisfied at the end. For those of you coming to the series for the first time, the structure of the book is very accessible so there’s no difficulty in reading this cold. People who like cozy mysteries will no doubt love this. From this introduction, you’ll detect I have a certain degree of ambivalence about it.
Welcome to small town America, Bakerhaven to be precise, in which a cast of regular characters know each other and, in appropriate circumstances, help each other out. It all depends on Cora Felton. She’s of a certain age, is the face used to advertise breakfast fodder for kids, and consolidates her fame or notoriety by being known as the Puzzle Lady, i.e. she’s launched hundreds of crosswords, sudoku and other puzzles on to the unsuspecting world. Except, of course, she’s a fraud — but in the nicest sense of the word. Although she’s got a real head for numbers, and creates and solves sudoku in her sleep, she has no aptitude for crosswords. The reason for the deception is to provide a source of income for her niece Sherry. When she was on the run from her abusive husband, Cora gave her a place to stay. Sherry earns her living creating the crosswords which the Puzzle Lady markets to those who like puzzles. Indeed, this book has crosswords and sudoku puzzles embedded in the text. Solving them gives vital clues (for those of you with no skill or aptitude in puzzle-solving, the solutions are given on the next page).
This time around, someone has broken into the town hall, but there’s no sign anything is missing. Next Cora’s attorney friend is invited to nearby New York to meet with a client for the first time. Instead of going to this man’s office, she’s invited to his penthouse. Out of an abundance of caution. Cora goes along as bodyguard. Needless to say, they come out of the lift, push open the door and find a dead body with a crossword puzzle pinned to its chest. A noise alerts them to the presence of someone in another room so Cora takes out her gun (yes she packs heat) and seconds later is shooting at a safecracker as he jumps out of the window. This leaves her in a tricky situation because the bullet currently residing inside the dead man’s head is too badly damaged to produce reliable markings. Cora’s bullet followed the burglar out through the open window, so the NYPD is not a million miles from having one of these neat circumstantial cases to show Cora as the killer. Except why would a sudoku puzzle also appear? This question joins a growing list of the unanswerable? Why do people break into small-town town halls and take nothing? Why do people later kill the town clerk with a blunt instrument. How come someone can incorporate a car’s licence plate number in the first sudoku puzzle and then use a car with those plates to follow Cora? and so on.
The accumulation of questions without answers grows somewhat frustrating both for the characters and the readers. So much happens which obviously must have some explanation, but the who and the why of it remain stubbornly elusive. Now we add in the element you will either find endearing or somewhat annoying. Cora’s last relationship has ended somewhat abruptly and she’s feeling a little fragile. Even during the best of times, she’s prone to engage in what one might call “banter”. In earlier books this is moderately friendly and reasonably humorous. This time round, she’s more barbed and, at times, the characters talk at each other rather than with each other. After a while, I found this grew tiresome. You can forgive much when people are feeling vulnerable, but this got out of hand.
So NYPD Puzzle is not as successful as the last in the series. The mystery is not something Cora and her cohorts solve. Rather they have to wait until it’s explained to them at the end. So instead of producing a ta-da whodunnit moment at the end, it fizzles out as the killer(s) is/are taken into custody. Shame really. With hindsight, the plot is ingenious but it never quite engages as the characters go through the necessary gyrations to find out who’s doing what to whom and why.
For a review of the previous book in the series, see Arsenic and Old Puzzles.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Having read Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart (Permanent Press, 2014), I’m encouraged to ask a simple question, “What’s funny?” Here’s the thing. No matter where you go (with the possible exception of North Koreans who don’t take shit from no-one and shoot first) people laugh. Yet for all this seems to be a characteristic of the human race, the reaction to situations and words used is not perfectly understood. It just seems to be something that evolved as a part of our general pattern of social interaction. Sharing a joke confirms membership of the group and, in some contexts, helps to defuse tensions. So what makes us laugh? It’s often the unexpected appearance of an absurd element. Life is moving along as usual, then something happens but, no matter what it is, there’s a quick and relatively painless resolution of the problem. In a real world scenario, a man slips on a banana skin but, having travelled some distance along the pavement, arms windmilling desperately, he regains control of his balance without falling. Having held their breaths, spectators bust into spontaneous applause, laughing and congratulating the man, while the resulting video goes viral on YouTube. Had the man fallen and broken bones, it would have been viewed as a tragic accident. Any public laughter would have been considered inappropriate even though he had looked funny while trying to avoid the fall.
In other words, humour has boundaries. Where they fall differs from one community to another. What one group may find hilarious, another may find tasteless. The wider the cultural gap, the more difficult it is for humour to cross. And, let’s face it, you can’t get a wider gap than the Atlantic. The cultural norms are strikingly different “over there”. For all the American entertainment industry has been doing its best to universalise its content, there’s a serious problem when it comes to humour. The rest of the world can be impressed by CGI epics and thrilled by tense drama, but it doesn’t always find its funny bone tickled by the US worldview as expressed through its humour. Let’s face it, we can’t even agree how to spell the word.
So this is not intended as a laugh-out-loud book, but it’s clearly aiming for the niche we might tentatively label comedy thriller. Think of it as juxtaposing universal thriller components with culturally-specific punch lines and jokes. In spirit, I was reminded of The Gazebo by Alec Coppel who was Australian. This is about a man hounded by a blackmailer who decides murder is the only way out. Having buried the body in the foundations of the titular gazebo, we then spend the rest of the play waiting for it to pop up again (they made an American film of it as well). Well here are two men. One is a very efficient hitman who, through spontaneously turning his one shot into a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, finds himself in deep trouble. Naturally, he relocates to a remote island off the coast of Florida. The other is a moderately obsessive accountant who hits the jackpot on the Powerball Lottery and is able to buy a house on a remote island. Unfortunately, it’s the same island and we spend the book waiting for the mob to arrive to extract their revenge. In the meantime, this plays out as a cross between Neil Simon’s Odd Couple and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. On one side, we’ve got a man who rakes his beach to keep it looking as perfect as he dreamed it would be — he’s the ultimate in voluntary hermits. On the other, there’s a man who enjoys sitting on the beach watching the sun go down — such is his girth, standing up again can be a challenge.
In the midst of all this, we have the accountant’s ex-wife who unilaterally decides their marriage never ended and she should be entitled to some of the lottery winnings, a parrot who has an extensive repertoire of phrases and sounds to keep all entertained, and one of the best people you could ever hope to find to represent the interests of the Indians. The resulting mixture is one of these delightful confections that seems lighter than air. Suspending disbelief like it never went out of fashion, we float across the Gulf to an island paradise that turns out to have one or two minor drawbacks. If we were following the exploits of Ignatius J Reilly, we would say Fortuna has not smiled on our heroic recluse. So this leaves him no option but to fend off these intrusions into the privacy of his idyl with a sharp tongue and the occasional resort to fresh tomatoes. Needless to say, both the words and the produce are considered provocative, and he finds himself hounded and beaten. Perhaps he should just piss in his own boat to save everyone else the trouble or just regift all his shit to North Korea and hope they don’t shoot back.
At my advanced age and given my curmudgeonly status, it’s remarkable I managed to avoid straining unused facial muscles while reading this book. Yes, I was tempted to smile several times which is high praise. There’s considerable wit on display and some of the jokes do prove universal. So with the threat of hit people invading my current island paradise, I have no choice but to recommend Gulf Boulevard. If it can almost make me smile, it must be outrageously amusing to everyone on the other side of the Atlantic.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
One of the joys of this role as a now almost full-time reviewer is the pure serendipity of the exercise. Although there’s an element of choice about which books I ask to review, there are times when I simply pick at random and, to my surprise, occasionally turn up a gem. At the other extreme, many of the books I pick on the basis of a known author turn out fairly dire. Everyone can have a bad day at the office. With Plastic by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2013) I have the ultimate satisfaction of finding a known author at the top of his game. Yet, somewhat extraordinarily as the preface recounts, this book has been doing the rounds of publishers for some considerable time. For reasons I cannot begin to guess at, all the supposedly knowledgeable big guns of the commissioning world turned this down. Maybe the marketing gurus failed to see this as a best-seller because they could not stick a convenient genre label on the putative front cover. So kudos to Solaris for picking it up. I find myself momentarily stilled in admiration for an author executing a very difficult task flawlessly.
At this point, I need to veer off and mention Tom Sharpe who died earlier this year. For me, the early books are outstanding examples of a raw farce, often turning satirical, but always with the capacity to make the reader laugh. However, starting with The Throwback, I found he grew too dark for my taste. It stopped being funny as his anger and cruelty became rather painful for the reader (and the protagonists). In Plastic, Christopher Fowler confronted the same problem, but solved it by actually liking his heroine. She may start off stunted but, even in her most desperate hours, you feel Fowler retains his affection for her. He wants her to survive. This imbues the first-person narrative with optimism and makes the entire venture a rather joyful if somewhat Gothic experience for her. Indeed, in the midst of all the chaos, there are a couple of laugh-out loud moments when the absolute absurdity of her situation is suddenly exposed. She’s the victim of circumstances outside her control. All the initial events are random. But if ever you wanted to assume a conspiracy to drive her over the edge, this is what it would look like. So in terms of genre, this is a dark farce which occasionally toys with thriller conventions. In this, I’m resisting seeing this in any way as being a horror novel. In a way, it’s an absurdist, extreme aversion therapy version of The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by the pseudonymous Sophia Kinsella with a mystery element for our heroine to puzzle out.
Now, carefully avoiding spoilers, it’s necessary to briefly introduce the key elements of the plot. We meet June Cryer. She’s hidden her intelligence under a bushel, well several bushels, hampers, buckets and boxes flecked with gold foil, all bought on credit using cards supplied by her husband. This is a tragedy. She could have been an interesting person, but an early pregnancy and a father willing to make an honest woman of her, put an end to that when she failed to carry to term. Now ten years into the marriage, her body may be present but her mind has long been numbed into submission. When she discovers her husband has been spending time with the woman next door, her only friend gets her a gig flat-sitting for a weekend. This should be easy money but that would be no “fun”. In fact things go wrong from the moment she walks through the door of this exclusive block of homes for the wealthy. Or, if you prefer, she suddenly realises the practical problems of the situation which she has volunteered to deal with. It’s perhaps a symptom of our times that people are allowed to occupy a new building before the fitting-out work is finished. These are heady consumerist days in the London housing market for the elite. Indeed, so anxious are people to be able to boast of their new address, they blithely accept the need to turn off the electricity for a weekend while repairs are made. Except the flat in which she’s being paid to huddle is stuffed with valuable artwork. So, with all electronic security systems depowered, she’s gone from suburban housewife to security operative without the see-in-the-dark goggles and 9 mm to reinforce her defensive capability.
Frankly, this is a wonderful book. . . but I’m obliged to raise a minor caveat. There’s a wealth of wit and humour to be excavated from the elegant prose and the unexpected nature of some of the events. Except it’s very British humour which may not travel so well outside the sceptered isle. It’s also possible some readers may be dubious that a man can produce a convincing first-person narrative featuring a woman. On this you should have no fear. In these more gender-blind days, I seriously doubt you would know the sex of the author unless you read the name on the cover. Well, obviously you did read the name but you know what I mean. Overall, Plastic is impressive no matter what genre label might be attached to it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Death, Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem by Diane Kelly (St Martin’s Press, 2013) sees IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway pitched into another mystery, this time with a jeweller unlucky enough to be a victim in a series of robberies. In this novella, it may only be two weeks before Christmas, but there’s no holiday when it comes to manipulating accounts to reduce tax liability. So put the festivities on the back burner, we’re off into battle as our intrepid investigator sets off into the Shoppes at Chisholm Trail Mall to audit a jewellery store run by Phillip and Deidre Freitag, who may be partners in crime and to consider the sorry state in which jilted Santa Claus finds himself. This is Chris Rasmussen, a moonlighting, hunky pediatric nurse. On the way, we add Fort worth Police Officer Megan Lutz and Sergeant Brigit, her impressive hair-shedding K-9 partner, who gets her own point of view chapters (as every good dog deserves — they’re not considered man’s best friend for nothing, it’s always for something). For those of you who have led deprived lives and have not read Diane Kelly before, Tara Holloway has two cats but they don’t get to do anything except demonstrate the truism of cupboard love, eat her houseplants, and sick up hairballs at the most opportune moments.
So here comes the pitch. Diane Kelly writes amusing mystery stories featuring Tara Holliday. There are already six in the series with the seventh due in 2014. This novella is what we might consider a crossover episode to introduce Officer Megan Lutz and Sergeant Brigit who are going to feature in a brand new series already labelled Paw Enforcement and due for publication in 2014. The point of the exercise is to strike a balance between three competing elements. There has to be enough investigation for both female leads and the dog to get their teeth into. The plot has to enable us to get a reasonable view of the new crime-fighting duo without it overshadowing the series character who travels wearing the Death, Taxes label. And there has to be an element of romance. I suppose stories of this type fly under the banner of cozy mysteries with a humorous take on sometimes serious crimes, the investigations being run by female characters. This series is slightly nonstandard cozy because our investigator is a federal agent with a gun rather than a local librarian with a flair for solving puzzles. In Tara’s defence, she’s a cat lover which more or less brings her into the fold.
In this instance, the novella length is about right. The tax evasion under investigation is not difficult to solve, merely requiring tedious hours going through digital and paper records to find the necessary evidence. There’s a shop-lifting for Megan to deal with and everyone comes together at the end for the mandatory chase with shots fired and the type of mayhem necessary to justify the novella’s title. This leaves us with the romance element. Perhaps I’m overly curmudgeonly even though we’re getting closer to the festive season, but I’m faintly sceptical Tara and Megan, having only just met, would have spent quite so much money to achieve the result. Yes to the gentle nudging in the right direction. . . hmmm to the tickets to the ball.
That said, Death, Taxes and Mistletoe Mayhem is enjoyable, efficiently delivering amusement which, in these jaded times, is why most of us read books (and novellas) like this.
For a review of a novel by Diane Kelly, see Death, Taxes, and Extra-Strength Hold Hairspray.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I freely confess I’m a sucker for elegant stories. Although simplistic up-and-at-’em thrillers can hit the spot, the better, more interesting variety has something more than a veneer of intelligence. Bombproof by Michael Robotham (Mulholland Books, 2013 — reprinted from earlier editions around the world) qualifies as intelligent in a major way. Let’s start with a definition of an accident. In general terms, it’s a type of unfortunate incident when those involved have little or no control over the outcome(s). Since the outcome(s) most usually involve some level of injury or damage to property, people consider accidents to be bad news. They do their best to avoid them. Yet accidents can come looking for people when they least expect them. Let’s hypothesise a wannabe musician, into rock-infused blues and hoping for the chance to make a living out of his love for music. He’s on his way to a gig. The youth who acts as his roadie has never been considered very bright. That’s why it comes as something of a surprise when he turns out to have been a particularly skillful safe cracker. Inconveniently, the genius thief dies, leaving our accident victim holding the diamond necklace hidden in his sound equipment. Naturally, the jury doesn’t believe the explanation of innocence. Indeed, everyone in the prison thinks our hero is just being modest about his skills as a thief.
So he knuckles down and serves his undeserved time. He hopes to resume his quest for rock stardom on his release. Except he finds accidents continue to lurk in waiting for him when he finally steps outside the gates of the jail. His sister has been kidnapped. Some serious villains want him to pull off a dangerous theft. With his sister in their hands, they have the leverage. It’s a shame he doesn’t have the skills. There’s just one hope. A retired police officer with a bee in his bonnet about a serious criminal thinks our “hero” may just be the best way of bringing this man down. This places our “hero” in the middle of a crisis and he has little to rely on except a high IQ and a complete absence of common sense.
The name of this ostensible hero is Sami Macbeth. To call him accident-prone would be an understatement but he’s relevant to the Garza family and an underworld figure called Tony Murphy. Lurking in a relatively minor role is ex-Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, a series character from some of Robotham’s previous novels. Even at the best of times, this would be a fraught set of relationships but, when a bomb goes off in the London Underground, the police and anti-terrorist units tend to believe Sami is involved. This further complicates matters.
Put this together and you have a very enjoyable novel about life as a criminal in London. It’s not intended as a flattering portrait albeit there’s a darkly humorous approach which, to some extent, leavens the somewhat malevolent behaviour of the villains. It’s also slightly less than flattering when it comes to describing the various policing agencies. In more conventional novels, the police are held up as the heroes. They virtuously defend life, liberty and the British way. Pauses to smile cynically. This is an edition aimed at the American market. Those reading this book should be warned of two features: the British English used is sometimes going to be a little obscure, and the incompetence and generally poor attitudes may be disconcerting to those who want to believe the British bobby is a model of professionalism. Every nation’s citizens like to delude themselves into believing they have the best/worst police on the planet. The reality is that all police forces act in a generally unaccountable way and individual officers are able to exploit the power inherent in their roles to hide their incompetence or to advance their personal status and wealth. In this case, the police jump to entirely the wrong conclusions about almost everything that happens. If all the coincidences in play were not so hilariously open to misinterpretation, it would all be tragically sad. As it is, the whole operates as a kind of slow-motion farce with our really dim hero at the calm centre of a tornado as it barrels across the London landscape. Everyone is doing their best under trying circumstances but, innocent and guilty alike, they all contrive to do the wrong thing until it all comes out right at the end (insofar as it can, of course). For whatever else you may be thinking about this gangland thriller, it’s really a Forest Gump style of fairy story in which innocence prevails amongst the carnage. Bombproof is a delight!
For a review of another book by Michael Robotham, see Bleed For Me.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Now You See It by Jane Tesh (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third in the Grace Street Mystery series. Although I never actually lived in a commune or squat during the 1960s — I was born middle-aged and could afford a roof over my head with comfortable furniture and my own choice of people wandering in and out — this book plays with the notion that a group of people living together will either fall into Satre’s model of Hell or find themselves operating as a continuous self-help group — which may seem like Hell for those on the receiving end of the help. In this developing series, we’ve got a small group aching for therapy and living together in a big oldish house on Grace Street. In theory, the six of the seven pair off but, as in all series, the path of true love, etc. The lesser mortals are Angie and Rufus, followed up the human evolutionary scale by Camden and Ellin who have psychic powers and produce an ESP show respectively. This leaves us with David Randall who’s deep into grief because of the death of his daughter, but hankers after Kary. And Fred who’s old and should really be in a home, except the Grace Street house has become home for him.
As a private investigator working out of his bedroom, Randall gets hired by a stage magician who hid a box as part of a bet only to find it gone when he returned. Such unexpected tricks are part of the trials and tribulations encountered in the world of magic. This proves there’s always a catch — that’s the one on the inside of the box used by the client’s twin brother who was thinking of becoming an escapologist. But, for some reason, when they open that box they find the dead body of the escapologist manqué. This is odd because he should have been able to escape since he knew where the hidden catch could be found. So now David Randall has to solve a two-box problem. One apparently stolen from its secret hiding place in the magic club and the other a locked-box murder with a body that shouldn’t have been inside (unless someone put it there, of course, and not in a magical way). These box cases have to fit around the missing diamond bracelet belonging to Sandy Olaf unless, like magic, the bracelet turns up in the missing smaller box, conveniently solving two of the cases with a drumroll and single Ta Dah!
In the midst of all this investigating, there’s confusion and dismay as the new financial backer for the cable show celebrating psychic powers insists his wife takes over as the host. This is alienating everyone connected with the show. Obviously the show needs the money to survive, but the production crew value their independence more. This connects back into the world of magic because the son of the inconveniently rich sponsor is a wannabe magician who’s completely talentless but auditioned at the magic club where the body was found in its box. Now is that a coincidence, or what? Which leads to an equally coincidental and even more irrelevant memory of a faintly comic British television series called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) set in and around London and only occasionally showing scenes shot in Camden in which a private investigator solves crimes with supernatural help.
Without being a flat-out comedy mystery, Now You See It is a very pleasing fun read, the pages intermittently bursting into life with people talking in idiosyncratic ways or there being a wry sense of humour underlying some of the situations. Indeed, the whole plot is somewhat ironic because Camden is a genuine psychic and he helps Randall investigate a group of magicians. Of course, the solution to the three crimes is mundane, i.e. not supernatural, but there is actually a sense of magic about the way the whole thing is put together. Even the identification of the bracelet’s final resting place is nicely managed. So Jane Tesh delivers an ingenious set of puzzles to solve, explores the backstabbing world of amateur and professional magicians, and leaves a smile on your lips when the final piece of the puzzle slots into place at the end. There are also some romantic resolutions but our PI remains on the shelf for now. Hopefully, he can make further progress through the five stages of grief in the next book in the series.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Pain and Gain (2013) takes us back to 1995 in Miami-Dade and long before Lieutenant Horatio Caine made this a safe place to live. That means people like Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) roam free to work their mischief (as the film repeatedly tells us, this is based on a true story). Such men may enhance their bodies through hard work lifting weights and the occasional injection of steroids, but big muscles on the outside do not make big brains on the inside. The set-up shows us a man on the run from the police who obviously had a get-rich-quick scheme that went wrong. When we move back six months in time and hear his sales pitch for what makes America so great, we know why it went wrong. This body-building narcissist lives in a fantasy land where his heroes are drawn from the cinema and the associated mythology of successful criminals. He watches a lot of movies so has an infallible plan to kidnap Victor Kershsaw (Tony Shalhoub). To make this plan work, he recruits Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) who has a veneer of Christian values spread over the stinking pile of moral weakness underneath, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) whose excessive investment in steroids has left him seriously challenged in the sex department.
From this brief introduction, you will understand this is probably intended as a comedy and may well have pretensions to social commentary. When I mention the director is Michael Bay you can express surprise at the lack of anything SFnal or supernatural. We even get to the end without any explosions (although there’s a reasonable amount of violence if that’s what gets you through the door of the cinema). It’s actually impressive to see a man who has made his money with big screen action films make something on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, with an idea this dumb, he should have been a don’ter not a doer.
To be honest, I don’t usually go to American comedies (assuming that’s what this is). As my age has advanced, I’ve been finding the cultural gap on transatlantic humour harder to cross. To say that my decision to watch this is an example of optimism prevailing over intelligence is therefore an understatement. After sitting through it, the question I’m left with is why we’re supposed to think kidnapping, robbery, and attempting to and actually murdering people is funny. Let’s pause for a moment and go back to Ruthless People (1986) in which two less than competent criminals kidnap Bette Midler to extort money from Danny DeVito. I recall this as mildly amusing and, at ninety-three minutes, it knew exactly how long a joke can be spun out before it loses its edge. At 129 minutes, this pile of amoral entertainment makes the case that it’s no big deal to rob Victor Kershaw because he’s a cruel and unsympathetic man. The police have no interest in his story. None of his neighbours missed seeing him around. His employees are relieved he no longer comes in to abuse them. Only retired private detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) even vaguely believes Victor’s claims and, in the first instance, it’s only because he’s so bored, he will seize any excuse to get out of the house.
As to our “heroes”, they think they’re home free after their first team crime. Adrian Doorbal gets married — the drugs to restore his erections are now affordable, Daniel Lugo becomes a pillar of the local neighborhood watch, and Paul Doyle rediscovers cocaine and the high that comes from having cops shoot at you after a failed robbery. Then when the fact of one-man pursuit penetrates their thick heads, they decide to double down. Not for them the pussy way of running away. They’ll do it again. Hell, yeh! Well, we all know how that’s going to go. By this time, I’m beyond despair. The divergence from the plan proves significant and the jokes (if that’s what they’re intended to be) get progressively more sick — chainsaws and BBQs come into play. Frankly, I see nothing even remotely funny about any of this. To dignify it as “dark comedy” or a social commentary would be absurd. Are we really supposed to accept the ideal route to realising the American dream is through crime? I know there have been some spectacular examples of fraudsters hitting it rich and accept that, in a country where being rich excuses many minor and some major faults, it’s possible to tell an entertaining story about such people. But no-one here looks good (apart from the retired detective and his wife). It doesn’t matter whether it’s the girl on the complaints desk at a hardware store or the wealthy neighbours Daniel Lugo inherits, everyone is shown as massively indifferent to notions of social responsibility at best or actively into lust, drugs and anything else sinful or criminal they think they can get away with. What we see is a society in decline.
Under normal circumstances, I might look the other way. It’s just another of these offensive films about life in the decadent West. But here we’re repeatedly told this is based on real-world events: the exploits of the Sun Gym Gang in the 1990s as told by Pete Collins. So taking this as a true story of three bodybuilders and the incredible failures of the Metro-Dade police force, I’m left with one final question. Where’s the film-makers’ disapproval of these idiotically dangerous criminals and of the dangerously incompetent police officers? I might have come away with a better opinion of this film if I’d felt the director and scriptwriters were holding these people up as exemplars of what not to do. Instead we have deranged heroes in what’s intended to be a comedy running rings around brain dead police officers. We’re obviously intended to laugh at their pathetic efforts to kill Victor Kershaw. What message is that sending to the audience? When they later accidentally kill people, we’re intended to laugh at their efforts to dispose of the bodies. I find this implicit approval of their actions to be profoundly offensive. Matching the film, the fact that the real-world Daniel Lugo has still not been executed is a testament to the pathetic way the American justice system works. If you have the death penalty and you have a deserving candidate, you dismiss the appeals and carry out the sentence. If you don’t, what’s the point of having capital punishment? What message is this sending to other potential kidnappers and killers? Even if you do get caught, America can’t kill people when they deserve to die. At every level, both as fiction and as a reference to real-world events, Pain and Gain is not just film with a moral vacuum at its core. From the fact of its production and the way in which it’s marketed, we’re being inviting to see this story of out-of-control predators as entertaining. The failure of the film-makers to take a moral stance against the events being shown makes this worse than Arbitrage and I thought that was bad.
Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) a short ebook collection @ $3.99, starts with “Still Life No 41”, shortlisted for Best Short Story in the 2013 Edgar Awards, in which the young twenty-six year old Director of the Museum of Ultra-Avant-Garde Art is pushed out of her job on the orders of the Minister of Culture. She’s naturally outraged. While it’s true she only got the job because the previous director had been her uncle and her father used his political pull with the Minister, it wasn’t her fault that the first exhibition she curated should turn out like that. The Museum had been negotiating for two years to persuade the artist to allow his work to be displayed. Our first-person narrator simply came in at the end with the deal in place. All she had to do was display what arrived. Which is what she did even though there was one more piece than the Museum was expecting. The launch was a triumph. Even the canapés were deemed sensational. After the excitement of the opening, every art critic who attended during the first days of the exhibition was ecstatic, confirming the forty-first work to be one of the finest example of modern art he or she had seen for years. It’s all so unfair she should be the political scapegoat.
The reason why “A Stitch in Time” is so successful is the tone. I mean if I was going to do something like this, I would have to be organised and stay calm. This is not the kind of thing to do when you’re all-a-flutter. Perhaps one of the more powerful anti-anxiety pills would be a good idea, just to settle the nerves but, once started, I would need to keep myself in one piece emotionally without external aid. And then it’s all as I rehearsed when the police come. Oh yes, the police are almost certain to come. But I’ll have everything ready by then. . . It’s the same with “The Thought That Counts”, a strangely dispassionate history of the life of a vampire. Did you know what having your very own vampire in residence does for the tourist trade? Everyone wants to come for the dark and forbidding castle and to sample the atmosphere where the beast sucked the life out of so many virgins. Anyway, having lived a lonely unlife through the centuries, you can imagine how our hero feels when someone tells him another bloodsucker has moved into his territory, and without so much as a by-your-leave or a friendly “Hello”.
“The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer” shows a troglodyte of above-average intelligence tasked with the job of investigating three murders. Someone is bashing out the brains of his fellow cave dwellers with conveniently-to-hand rocks which is disturbing the amenity of the cave and putting some of the other men on edge — at least those bright enough to see a correlation between dead men and blood-stained rocks left a few feet away from the body. Our hero is able to discount Geoffrey as a suspect because a bear ate his arms which makes rock-wielding a challenge. But be reassured, our Sherlock of the Stone Age is going to crack the case as soon as he realizes the game’s afoot, or something. And finally, “The Offering” has a pathologist readying himself for an autopsy without realizing it’s the body of one of the secretaries working at his clinic who’s apparently committed suicide. When the truth sinks in, he grows obsessed with the question why she should have taken her life. He visits her apartment and learns something of her by observing what she left behind. But it’s when he confronts the body that he realizes her motive. This story, like the others in this short collection, has a brooding sense of tragedy overlain with a satirical sensibility.
Thematically, we’re concerned with individuals who find their lives turned upside down by events. The Museum director accepts the additional exhibit, the mother can only find love for her child, the vampire is first curious then angered another is attacking the people who live around him, the detective who can penetrate the mysteries of life, and the pathologist who finds unexpected beauty. Set out in simple phrases, this fails to capture the wit and humour underlying the sometimes gory subject matter. Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is not quite black humour, but it’s certainly dark grey and a delightful surprise in a world that’s largely forgotten the function satire is supposed to perform, i.e. as a form of social commentary or criticism designed to encourage the world to improve. This review should encourage us to try Teresa Solana’s latest mystery novel The Sound of One Hand Killing which comes out in May.
For a review of one of her novels, see The Sound of One Hand Killing.
“Still Life No 41″ was nominated as in the Best Short Story category of the 2013 Edgar Awards.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I have to start off with a disclaimer. Although I did practise doing the Sunday Times crossword during the 1960s and grew quite good at it, I’ve never really been interested in puzzle-solving per se. Indeed, such is the poverty of my numerical skills, that I’ve never even attempted the solution of any problems relying on arithmetic or other basic mathematical techniques. My eyes glaze over instantaneously if I inadvertently find myself in the same room as one of these modern sudoku games. The only thing that has saved me over the years is the machine. In the 1960s, there were adding machines to total columns of figures. I was quickly into mainframes in the 1970s to take out all the drudgery of having to calculate in my head. And the arrival of spreadsheets on home-based computers has revolutionised my view of accounting. I therefore find myself in sympathy with the spirit of the heroine of Arsenic and Old Puzzles by Parnell Hall (Minotaur Books, 2013) A Puzzle Lady Mystery, Volume 14. She can’t do crossword puzzles, but has become the face that syndicates puzzles of all varieties through the newspaper and magazine world (with books an added bonus). I forgive her the ability to solve sudoku puzzles. No-one’s perfect.
From this you’ll understand she has “help”. More importantly, she has to be a cunning manipulator of the world. If it came out she was not the fountainhead of all puzzles, her reputation would be destroyed and her comfortable life would be at an end. She must therefore deflect all conversations with fans and admirers on to general topics. Nothing must disturb the mystique of her puzzle creativity. This puts her under pressure when local law enforcement find themselves confronted by a “puzzle” they can’t solve. Perhaps our heroine could make a few suggestions on who the killer might be. The result is great fun (doubly enjoyable for those who are into puzzle-solving because this book contains crossword and sudoku puzzles for you to break off and solve before continuing to the next chapter — if you’re like me, the solutions are thoughtfully provided some pages later). And talking about fun, this is a genuinely amusing book. It’s not just the number of zingers dotted around the dialogue sequences, there’s a genuinely subversive sense of humour in evidence as the Puzzle Lady navigates the world and contrives to arrive in several ports of call, not all of which are quite what they seem.
Now as to the murders. This book is a delightfully contrived variation on the theme of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), a wonderful film starring Cary Grant. If you haven’t seen this classic screwball comedy, you should. Even though elements will seem dated today, the underlying farce carries the day. It’s magnificently absurd in an entirely logical kind of way. So in this book we have a boarding house run by two slightly batty old sisters and their nephew is proposing to marry the girl next door. Early on, a elderly man, who proves unidentifiable, dies in their sitting room while drinking elderberry wine laced with arsenic. In his pocket is a sudoku puzzle. Later a second body turns up in the window seat of the same room. An old crossword puzzle is discovered nearby. Naturally, this looks as if the murderer is throwing down a challenge to our Puzzle Lady. Except, from her point of view, absolutely nothing makes any sense. These sisters have been running their B&B for years, have little money and no obvious motive for suddenly wanting to embark on a killing spree. Equally, there seems no point for a murderer to go to all this trouble to replicate the old film. And as to the puzzles. . . well, they are puzzles, but there’s no obvious point to leaving old puzzles as clues unless:
(a) this is a serial killer case in which some crazed individual is ritualising Arsenic and Old Lace to select the dumping ground for the bodies, and
(b) using unsolved puzzles as his or her trademark or signature.
Like that’s ever going to happen. . . However, when this nephew’s older brother turns up and he looks not unlike Boris Karloff. . . Well it gives our Puzzle Lady a nice puzzle to chew on.
This was my first look at a book by Parnell Hall and I find myself an immediate fan of his writing. Style is an indefinable and highly subjective element. I’m therefore unable to say with any degree of certainty just why I like the way this book is put together, In part, it’s the obvious delight the author has in showing us a character who so completely manipulates those around her. Even though she’s got good intentions most of the time, she’s devious and dishonest, qualities we shouldn’t find so endearing. There’s also the amusement factor. It’s not laugh-out-loud but, as you turn the pages, you get into the expectation of a smile or two turning up as each chapter unfolds. Finally, Arsenic and Old Puzzles shows us a fascinating puzzle and gives an entirely plausible solution. I now know why a modern murder should look like a rerun of a 1944 screwball comedy. You will also find the answer pleasing.
For a review of the next in the series, see NYPD Puzzle.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures by Mike Resnick (Subterranean Press, 2012) is a very pleasing collection with one or two outstanding stories all rather beautifully bundled together by the good folk at Subterranean.
We start off with an African story, “Seven Views of Orduvai Gorge”, which poses two interesting questions. Suppose we have a race that develops intelligence and tool-handling ability. In due course, it develops the capacity to travel to the stars and builds an Empire. Later, when it has died away, a team comes to its planet of origin, Earth, to examine the historical record. What can six random snapshots of the past tell us about the history of such a race. Second, as the one with the power to interpret the evidence and inform the team of his findings, what duty does He Who Views have to pass on what he sees? Is it the role of a “historian” to filter what is communicated? Should he impose his own moral standards in deciding how much to tell those in the team? “Barnaby in Exile” is a rather thin story about a chimp that’s reared in a lab and encouraged to think and communicate by signing. When the funding for the experiment is lost, he’s sent out into the jungle, the unsympathetic humans assuming he’s somehow genetically aware how to survive in such an environment. Continuing with animals, “The Last Dog” just about avoids sentimentality as the last man befriends the last dog and then loses out to the alien that’s been going round killing everyone. As a story, it actually makes little sense. Is this alien one of these dedicated, do-it-the-hard-way types that wants to track down the last man without the benefit of his advanced technology? If it knows this is the last man, it must have a way of scanning the Earth and finding no other human alive. Why does the last man seem to know the alien? I could go on but you should understand from this that it’s not very good.
“Article of Faith” makes a serious attempt at a difficult subject. For those who believe in the practical reality of souls, it would come as a shock if it were to be suggested that robots could have one. Mike Resnick is to be commended on having the intellectual honesty to describe the outrage the evangelicals might feel, particularly if high rates of unemployment were caused by their arrival in local factories. Unfortunately, I find the result competent but unexciting. But “The Big Guy” turns that round neatly. One of the other rather clichéd robot plots is the problem of the “emotion” chip. Machines can’t be programmed to feel although they can simulate the more obvious emotions in their behaviour if this is required. This story produces a very ingenious way of looking at the phenomenon of free will and investigates how a robot might go about learning how to feel. “The Boy Who Yelled Dragon” is a rather slight fantasy story written for the YA market.
“Alistair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders” is the best story I’ve read so far this year. Admittedly the year is only a few days old but it’s going to take something outstanding to beat it. In tone, it reminds me of Peter Beagle as two old men set off on a final trip down memory lane before taking the fast elevator to the Pearly Gates. On the way, there’s just enough magic to make their final days less painful. “Distant Replay” is another old fogey story but it doesn’t work quite as well. There’s a sense of wonder about the set-up but the pay-off is just too pulpy to be satisfying. “The Bridge of Frankenstein” continues in this slightly sentimental sequence of stories, this time avoiding mawkishness by creatively engaging with the problems of Mrs Frankenstein as she learns to accommodate Igor and accept the monster as a marriage guidance counsellor. This has a delightfully wry sense of humour about it. And talking about humour, “The One That Got Away” explains why the howls of some coyotes are just a little bit more frustrated than you might realise.
“All the Things You Are” is a wonderful set-up but it fails to deliver because Mike Resnick does not follow the logic of the story. If we have a telepathic alien who can read everything in the target mind, it knows exactly why the hero has come to this planet. For it then to say that our hero has caught on more quickly than those who went before is absurd. His forerunners were innocent victims and might never understand what had happened. I also find it less than satisfying that our hero is not immune or less addicted. He’s gone into this situation with his eyes open. There’s no reason for him to follow the pattern. More interestingly, why does he not kill the pilot and leave himself on the planet but with a lifeline? I could go on but you should understand my frustration from these sample thoughts.
“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” is a rather pleasing story in which everyone tells the truth as they perceive it within their own terms of reference yet, paradoxically, the man calling himself Captain Nebula is as crazy as a loon (or not as the case may be). And, finally, “Six Blind Men and an Alien” presents us with a rather elegant version of the old story of the elephant and the sample “feels” taken by each man. One of the most difficult of all choices made by an author is the length of the finished product. This is a very clever idea and each of the “feels” is interesting. Fortunately, the author has the good sense to stop before the interest runs out. Put all this together and you have one of the better collections of the year.