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Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Broken_(Korean_Movie)-p1

Revenge is one of the natural human responses, but it’s a more complex moral issue. The implication is that injuring someone in return for an injury suffered is justified as payback in kind but, if everyone engaged in this form of personalised justice, there would be chaos. Violence would escalate and so, to protect society, we delegate the policing function and the administration of justice to the state. In one sense, it takes revenge for us. There’s a balancing of harms and the honour of the victims is upheld. Theoretically, future wrongdoers are deterred and current criminals can be rehabilitated if everyone accepts the idea that the punishment meted out is fundamentally fair.

 

So let’s say a woman is raped. She’s the immediate victim. If she dies in the attack, her family members are also victimised. In our constitutional systems, the state usurps the right of the individuals to seek personal revenge. By doing so, it denies the experience of the victims and their need to strike back. Indeed ironically, if the victims decide to take action, the state is obligated to protect the rapists. This is not satisfactory to the victims. Further, if the state does not administer a punishment the victims feel is appropriately severe, a further loss of confidence emerges.

Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young) takes his pursuit into the outdoors

Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young) takes his pursuit into the outdoors

 

Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014) is a Korean version of the novel Samayou Yaiba by Keigo Higashino (a Japanese film version of the novel was released in 2009). The primary character is Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young). He nursed his wife for three years while she died of cancer. When she dies, he sinks into depression. He has no time for his young daughter, Soo-Jin (Lee Soo-Bin). All he can do is go to work, earning enough to pay the bills despite the unforgiving nature of the work itself. When his daughter is kidnapped and dies while being raped, his life completely falls apart. He haunts the police station but all Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) can tell him is that they are working the case. He can do nothing to help. He should go home and wait for news.

Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) on the right consider his strategy

Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) on the right consider his strategy

 

After a while, he decides to act and spends his savings on fliers which feature photographs of his daughter and his telephone number. Plagued by his feeling of guilt, one of the three juveniles sends the name and address of one of the other attackers who has video recordings of all their attacks. When the father breaks in and watches the video of his daughter’s death, he’s deeply wounded. Unfortunately, the young man comes home at this point and the father beats him to death with a baseball bat. Before he dies, the youth indicates where the third participant may be found. This sets the father off on the hunt. The detectives quickly realise who must be responsible and, with the evidence from the video recordings in their hands, they begin to contact all the families of those involved. Not all these parents where aware their daughters had been raped and their anguish is plainly on display. The problem for the police is that all these offenders are juveniles and unlikely to spend more than a few months in jail for their crimes. Now they know one parent has already killed one of the rapists and is on the trail of another, the senior officers decide they must not speak too publicly about this situation. If they give out the name and photograph of the young man at risk, the parents of other victims or vigilantes may get to him first. Detective Eok-Gwan is to lead the hunt without alerting the media. The father gets to the man who bought the videos of the rapes and sold them on as porn. They fight and, again, before he dies, the pornographer indicates where the missing young man may be hiding.

 

Conceptually, this is a marvellous film. It shows in detail how so many individuals and the state are broken. Two of the young offenders are callous and feel no guilt as to their behaviour. The third who blows the whistle was weak-willed and participated because he feared what the others would do to him if he did not actively support them. Their families are dysfunctional. The families of some of the victims were also dysfunctional offering little emotional support or practical care to their daughters. The detective is already being investigated because he reacted with some violence when arresting a juvenile offender in an earlier case. He’s deeply frustrated that the state’s justice system is broken and fails to dispense real punishments or positive treatment for offenders to effect their rehabilitation.

 

The pace of the film is terrific during the first two-thirds, but it then overplays its hand and goes through an unnecessary contortion to produce a grand climax. While not disputing the power of the final scenes, it took too long to get there and the impact was slightly diluted. Nevertheless, Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 is a thoughtful and above average thriller that gets to the heart of the problem of how to deal with juveniles who commit serious offences.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Salvation of a Saint
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

Disclosures by Bill James

December 1, 2014 3 comments

Disclosures by Bill James

Memory is a strange double-edged ability to possess. When it’s working properly, it mines the past for all the strategies that worked the best. With the benefit of that experience comes wisdom. But that same memory can recall all the mistakes we made. Unless there’s a filter of some kind, self-confidence can be fatally punctured and depression becomes the new norm. So if the psychologists are right and we become the sum of whichever memories we choose to rely on, we can either become very successful by avoiding all the mistakes of our past, or we can never amount to a hill of beans. Disclosures by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) rather elegantly gives us a model from the past and then invites us to consider which strategy will work best for the present.

 

In the blue corner of this twin narrative track comes Esther Davidson who had the responsibility of policing the imminent fight between Pasque Uno and Opal Render, two London gangs bent on bringing a turf war to a conclusion and so determine the right to distribute drugs in this particular neighbourhood. She had good intelligence of the impending gunfight, but instead of intervening early to prevent casualties, she decided the best interests of London would be served by having as many dead or serious injured criminals as possible. She got her way, although perhaps not all the shots were fired by the criminals. The survivors duly ended up in jail, and some degree of peace was established for a while in a London that remained ambivalent about this hands-off strategy.

Bill James

Bill James

 

In the red corner stands Ralph Wyvern Ember. He was supposed to be one of the combatants but, when the dust settled, there was no sign of him. He’s now running The Monty, a club which he would like to be upmarket but, in this neck of the woods, there’s no way he can raise the class of the place to match the Athenaeum, The Garrick or any of the other London clubs he dreams of emulating. He makes do as best he can. From this you’ll understand he’s rather a shallow man who has shamelessly embraced pretentiousness. This helps him maintain a veneer of apparent sophistication and some level of self-deception that he’s not a coward. This involves him in not thinking about the past too much lest it disturb his self-image, whereas Esther quite often replays the tapes she’s kept of the briefings she gave before the shootout.

 

Having seen what went before, we now come into the reality of today with Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur meeting up with an informant who believes this Christmas may be more than usually dangerous for Ember. When this news is passed on to Assistant Chief Constable (Operations) Desmond Iles, they have the same dilemma as faced by Esther Davidson all those years ago. If surviving gang members have now been released from jail and feel like paying Ember a Santa-like visit to spread a little good cheer, when, if at all, should they intervene? The answer provided is elegantly practical and not without its amusing side. Indeed, the whole is told with a kind of deadpan humour. If it had gone a little further, it might have become a farce. As it is, there’s the opportunity to smile when things go right or wrong, depending on the point of view. Put all this together and you have a very British take on the practicalities of policing given the general rule that, for most of the time, officers do not carry firearms. In such cases, the police may wish the informers would keep their mouths shut. If they don’t know, there’s no obligation to be there and potentially get in the way of the bullets. As it is, Disclosures is an entertaining book that poses some interesting questions.

 

For reviews of other books by Bill James, see:
Noose
Snatched: A British Black Comedy.

 

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

 

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

November 23, 2014 1 comment

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus (Minotaur Books, 2014) (translated by Steven T Murray) sees a return for Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Detective Oliver von Bodenstein who are senior officers in Hofheim’s Police Department. I should note the repeat of an appalling practice by the publisher. This is quite a long-running series from an initially self-published, now leading, German author. In their wisdom, the first book published in english was Snow White Must Die and this is the second. In fact, the first book was Swimming With Sharks which saw the light of day in 2005. If you go back to the original German bibliography, Snow White Must Die and Bad Wolf were respectively the fourth and sixth books. There’s also an english version of The Ice Queen so those of you who want to catch up can begin to do so. One of the reasons why people read series is their growing interest in the major characters and their lives. Although each book is focused on a single investigation, there’s a metanarrative which has continuing arcs for many different characters both major and minor. We have therefore been denied the chance to watch the evolution of these characters over the whole series. This is the same problem that blighted the Harry Hole novels.

At a early point in this book, we meet Frank Behnke, a colleague of Pia’s who was disgraced and has now returned as a member of Internal Affairs, determined to exact revenge. We also get a quick introduction to Hanna Herzmann. She’s a television personality who runs a form of investigative journalism show which, if she’s able to acquire the information, has not been afraid to take on bigger stories. Her ambition, however, first seen in Snow White Must Die, the first published in the english version of the series, is going to lead her to take on more than she can chew. The police investigation is triggered by the discovery of a body floating close to the Eddersheim locks courtesy of some teens who were drinking themselves insensible on the river banks. It’s immediately clear she’s been the victim of physical abuse for years. It’s not just the bruises, but the malnourishment and general lack of care suggesting she’s been held a captive for many years. From this brief introduction, you will realise this book is not for everyone. Thematically, we’re dealing with the abuse of children and the network of individuals who trade in them. Although the book is not overly explicit, it nevertheless does not flinch from descriptions which some readers may find distressing.

Nele Neuhaus

Nele Neuhaus

Structurally, the book has multiple points of view and, for the first part of the book, it’s a little difficult to keep track of who everyone is. Obviously, the longer you read, the more clear the links become between the different individuals, but there’s quite a large cast to accommodate and the plot itself is quite complicated. Adding to the resistance to a smooth reading experience is the denseness of the prose. This is not a criticism of the translation as such. Some books are written with a mass of detail about most of what characters see and experience. This book does require some commitment to get through the opening sections. However, once we emerge into the central section where the investigation gets into its stride, the pace begins to pick up and we have an ending which is both reasonably dramatic and fairly realistic in that the establishment closes ranks and the outcome of the investigation is merely an inconvenience to the remainder of the abusers. We only have to look at the way in which investigations in Britain have been manipulated and suppressed when powerful individuals have been threatened with exposure. For all we like to believe we live in civilised societies in which abuse is always forcefully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, the practical reality is that members of Parliament, the judiciary, and senior businessmen have always managed to avoid exposure. We even had to wait until he died before Jimmy Savile’s serial sexual abuse could be exposed. The same happens in Germany and whether you want to read about this in Bad Wolf is a choice only you can make.

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

Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes

November 17, 2014 1 comment

under a silent moon cover

I’m slightly going to break with my convention by starting with a headline. Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes (HarperCollins, 2014) has too many words in it. Yes, I’ve finally come up with the ultimately damning feature for any book. Although this runs in at a modest 359 pages, it’s definitely too wordy. “Ah ha!” you’re saying, “There’s some inconsistency there!” But the number of words employed in telling the story has nothing to do with the length of the book. Take this opening paragraph as a classic example of the phenomenon. It would have been possible to construct a few sentences that delivered the critique in a short and simple way everyone could understand without a second thought. But, no, I had to go rambling off into the long grass, not caring whether anyone was really following or not. So, if you want the nutshell version, this is a book that thinks it makes itself a superfine police procedural by incorporating the jargon and a number of details from the real world of policing. So we have witness statements incorporated into the text, and charts displayed in the appendix. This is what we might expect when a crime novel is being written by a person who has worked as a police intelligence analyst. She has the knowledge and expertise and has not been afraid to use it.

So now comes the crystalisation of the point. Looked at objectively, this is a very good plot. With two deaths on the same night in a small village, one a probable murder, the other a possible suicide, DCI Lou Smith, our new series heroine, is in charge of her first major incident inquiry. We have the usual skewed social dynamics because she had an affair with one of the team, breaking it off when she discovered he was married. This has left the atmosphere tense between them. Despite this, the investigation gets off to a rapid start and we’re soon accumulating details of who was where and what they might have been doing. However, I find the change of format and style of conventional prose to incorporate formal witness statements, intelligence reports and other documents distracting. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my police characters to interview witnesses and the authors to write down the answers as dialogue. To my mind, this is putting realism on a pedestal and allowing it to dominate the more natural narrative dynamics.

Elizabeth Haynes

Elizabeth Haynes

We then come to the characterisation which is somewhat perfunctory. We have a multiple point of view format and so there’s not that much time to get any real sense of who everyone is. There’s a general impression they are servants to the plot and moved around to get the desired results. There’s also one plot element surrounding a fairly important character that’s completely unresolved. I suppose this could be carried over into the next book in the series, but it feels unsatisfactory as it stands. And then comes what is slightly becoming the mandatory soft porn element in many of these detective/police procedurals. In this, I’m also including television serials like The Fall which, more often than not, seem to be celebrating misogyny and the objectification of women in a distinctly unpleasant fashion.

This book contains fairly explicit scenes depicting one particular form of BDSM. Although I can, to some extent, understand an author and the publisher believing that sex sells books, this level of description strikes me as unnecessarily explicit. Not that I think people do not engage in activities like this. It’s just we know so little of the individual who becomes a sub that it’s impossible to say whether this ready acceptance of this particular practice is plausible. It’s ironic that an author who aspires to introduce realism into the police procedural side of the book, should avoid realism when it comes to the BDSM. If authors are going to include content involving dominance and subservience, it’s useful to lay the groundwork to show some level of predisposition. D&S depends on safety protocols based on explicit consent. Without discussion between the parties to agree what can and cannot be done, and informed consent, where does the trust and the claimed enhancement of sexual pleasure come from? No matter what we might think of Fifty Shades of Grey, it does give some background to the characters so we can understand why they come to engage in their particular behaviour. Without this, the content just looks like exploitative smut intended to help the marketing department sell the book.

Put all this together and you have a genuinely poor book with everything possible done to kill interest in what could have been quite a successful story. Under a Silent Moon is not recommended.

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

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

November 14, 2014 2 comments

The Severed Streets

There are times you read a book and you know in your bones there’s a good story in the content, but it’s buried and left unfulfilled. Well, The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2014) Shadow Police 2, is just such a book. Following on from London Falling, our team of four are doing their best to adjust to the reality of their newly acquired supernatural powers. So, if you wanted a thumbnail sketch of the book, this is a dark fantasy grafted on to a police procedural. In theory, this is a good blend because stolid and, up to the moment their eyes are literally opened to the “reality” around them, reliable police officers (plus one intelligence analyst). Suddenly they have to adjust their thinking to accommodate the “impossible”.

In this case, we have a beastie on the loose which may be the original Jack the Ripper or a new incarnation of some sort that wants the world to label him or her as a modern version of Jack. Either way, this razor-wielding creature literally passes through walls and the sides of motorcars, hacking away at the white powerful men inside. Ah yes, you noticed the difference. Instead of killing prostitutes, this modern Jack has a completely different agenda. At this point, it’s appropriate to point out the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of the author. I don’t mind him creating characters who can see a different version of reality as an overlay on the London around them, but I strenuously reject the idea that this alternate reality could be captured by digital cameras and then viewed by our “sighted” heroes. Supernatural powers vested in an individual by an accidental exposure to a trigger give the sight. Digital cameras, no matter how advanced their design, cannot see supernatural events and, if they could record them, they would presumably then be visible to all viewers.

Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell

It’s this kind of annoying lack of logic that bedevils the book. That and the fact it’s badly overwritten in the first third so that the pace is leaden and the development of scenes interminably boring, e.g. in the pub called the Goat and Compass. There’s also one other seriously odd element. In historical mysteries, it’s relatively common for real-world characters to appear. This is the first time I can remember a living person featuring as a character. In this case, we meet Neil Gaiman who proves to have an important role to play as the plot develops. Of course, Paul Cornell asked Neil Gaiman for permission and got approval for the use of his name. For some, I suppose, this adds an extra frisson of excitement. I thought it a dissonant note. If you are writing fiction with a dark fantasy twist, including a real person as a player is crossing the line between fiction and reality. I don’t think it works at all.

That said, the basic plot is sound with a nicely balanced threat to destabilise London as an excuse for imposing a little more order — the usual right-wing conspiracy theory made real by a man able to manipulate the zeitgeist and hack into dreams to see where there may be problems to solve. Some of this works really well as we progress into the second third of the book and the pace picks up. There are stresses and strains on the group of four police officers, and one inadvertently finds a very original way of interviewing the key characters who can speak truth and out the villain of the piece. So I’m faced with a minor problem. Because it finishes strongly, I could deem the whole a success. Or I could declare the flaws to be sufficiently serious that I cannot recommend the book. On balance, with some reservations, I think there’s enough good to make The Severed Streets worth reading. Perhaps more importantly, it’s been left in a very interesting position so the next book in the series will be starting off from a good position.

For a review of the first in the series, see London Falling.

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

The Son by Jo Nesbø

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

The Son by Jo Nesbo

There are times when it’s right to begin a review with a headline that will signal whether people want to take the time to read the rest. This is such a time. Making no apologies for the alliteration, The Son by Jo Nesbø (Alfred Knopf, 2014) is magnificently malevolent. From this you will understand that there’s a significant amount of violence, mayhem, and not a little murder delivered with considerable flair and in often quite stunning detail. So if you’re of a nervous disposition and easily shocked, this is not a book you should pick up.

Continuing now with those of you who enjoy a book which explores the darker side of human nature with unbridled enthusiasm, this is a story of revenge and, despite the level of criminality and corruption that’s revealed as the plot unwinds, it speculates on whether taking revenge in cold blood can ever be redemptive. In this, you should understand, there’s a considerable lack of plausibility. But if the plot is going to get everyone relevant to the right places at the right time as the end approaches, physical and emotional laws need to be flexible. Escapes must be possible, bullets will miss their targets, and human hearts prove weak and strong as the situation dictates. In spirit, this reminded me of Headhunters which is the other non-Harry Hole novel and which became a wonderful film. Such a resonance has also occurred in the boardrooms of Hollywood because Warner Bros bought this book in 2012 and is developing it for a big screen debut sometime in the future.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

So what’s it about? We begin by examining the existence of one Sonny Lofthus who’s one of these remarkably laid-back prisoners in what’s supposed to be one of Scandinavia’s superprisons. Somehow he’s managing to score a continuous amount of almost pure heroin which keeps him docile and tractable over the twelve years of his imprisonment. He surfaces just enough to have become a father confessor figure to all the other prisoners and to admit to murders when it’s convenient to those that control him. At this point in his career, he was allowed out on a day visit and, as if by magic, a woman was murdered. Despite there being another more credible suspect, Sonny is soon admitting to the killing. Except, during one of his informal confession sessions, one of the other inmates tells him a story about the circumstances in which his father died. This inspires him to go cold turkey and, in due course, to escape from this magic prison. This sends him on a rampage of revenge. He’s been a listening ear to so many stories told over the years and, of course, he had to learn all the details of the murders he was to admit. This means he knows exactly who’s guilty and should be punished for their sins.

This leads us to Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, an older but very experienced detective now working homicide. When he was younger, he was one of three cadets entering the force. One has now achieved high rank as the police commissioner. The other was Sonny’s father. Now he’s caught up in investigating the emerging series of homicides as Sonny works up to full rampage mode. In the midst of all this, there’s time for some sentimentality and various interacting themes of love. It all works up to a superior climax in which the “heroes” prevail and, albeit in slightly bloodthirsty terms, justice prevails. There’s terrific narrative drive as we turn the pages to find the next major incident. This is not a book you read for realism but, in its own kind of way, it rises above the corruption and general nastiness of human nature and ends on a positive note as peace and calm once again descends on Norway. The Son is recommended as police procedural meets violent crime with a little horror thrown in to spice up the plot.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
Cockroaches
Police.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

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

Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Unnatural-Murder-986428-fc399550babc6d57bd10

When I went to university I was, to all intents and purposes, a country bumpkin. I’d spent more or less all my time in a small village on the North-East coast of England. So suddenly coming into a major city with one of the top universities just as the counter-cultural revolution was getting into its stride in the 1960s (later epitomised as the time of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” by Ian Dury) ripped off my rose-tinted spectacles and invited me to make decisions about a whole range of issues I’d never thought about. Coming forward to the modern young adult leaving the nest to study, the difference could not be more pronounced. Whereas I was completely naive, today’s young have been exposed to the internet from their earliest years and are aware of most aspects of human behaviour long before they crack the teen barrier. To that extent, prejudices have been formed earlier and so can be more difficult to dislodge when later confronting the reality.

My reason for starting in this way is the theme of Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial (The Permanent Press, 2014). Today, it’s almost impossible to avoid knowing something about the range of behavior which exists on the curve from the fetishistic use of individual items of clothing, through transvestism, to transsexualism which may involve the use of hormones and/or surgery to make adjustments to external appearance. This book begins with the murder of a cross-dressing male who’s about to begin the process of gender reassignment. Just before he dies, he goes into St. Margaret Mary’s for confession. Unfortunately, instead of offering a helpful and supportive ear, Father O’Reilly’s hostile indifference drives the man away. Feeling guilty, the priest follows only to find the man killed just a few yards from the church.

The technical problem for the author to solve is one of authorial attitude. It would be possible to construct a judgmental plot in which many readers’ prejudices might be confirmed about what can be characterised as perverse sexual behaviour. Yet as the current cultural climate has shifted in favour of same-sex marriage and against stereotypical homophobic and other gender-based attitudes, the author should really be aiming for at least a neutral point of view. In a case involving transvestism, it would not be unusual for the partner to completely accept the decision of the other to dress in clothing considered appropriate to the other gender. If there are children from such a relationship, they are often even more supportive, accepting the decision of their father or mother as being true to his or her essential nature. The reaction can be different in cases of transsexualism where feelings of abandonment and rejection can be more prominent.

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

Since this is another book in which we see inside the police station run by Captain Josie Corsino, this problem is magnified because, as a woman in a role more often than not seen as “rightfully” belonging to a man, she has to protect herself, navigate the difficult sexual politics in the ranks of the officers serving in her station, and enforce a general sense of respect for the victim(s), no matter what the officers’ private opinions. Thematically, therefore, we’re confronted by a number of different situations in which gender politics are relevant. Women in the Hollywood Community Police Station have to confront prejudice just as some of those who cross-dress and appear in public can also find themselves in emotional and/or physical danger. In both cases, individuals are deliberately stepping outside the roles attributed to them by conservative culture. That they choose to confront conventional beliefs and expectations shows considerable bravery.

From a purely technical point of view, the author makes no clear distinction between the male transvestite who’s entirely happy to retain male status and often has entirely successful relationships whether comprising the same or different biological sexes, and the individual who seeks a surgical intervention to reassign gender identity. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all cross-dressers are unhappy with their biological sex. No-one with experience in psychosexual cases would agree with this proposition.

This lack of clarity and a failure to avoid a number of clichés in the relationships of those around Corsino herself, leave the book feeling emotionally superficial and unsatisfactory. This is rather a shame. Just as there have now been a number of books which deal with the situation of an African American who can pass as a Caucasian, there’s a real need for a book to constructively engage either with the individuals who can pass as a member of the opposite sex or who elect to dress in nonconforming clothing without any wish to be taken as a member of that sex. Sadly, this is not one of them. As to the mystery element, it’s somewhat mechanical and depends on some slightly unlikely events for the “right” outcomes to be achieved. The general sense of life in the Hollywood Community Police Station, however, retains the authentic feel of the first novel I read from this author. So Unnatural Murder is socially interesting in the authorial attitudes revealed. It starts with the title and goes downhill from there. All murders should be considered unnatural, but I suspect this author intends readers to infer this is the murder of a man with unnatural tendencies. Worse, I can’t particularly recommend it as a murder mystery.

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

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

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