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Reaping the Dark by Gary McMahon

April 8, 2014 5 comments

reaping the dark by gary mcmahon

Reaping the Dark by Gary McMahon (Dark Fuse, 2014), 2014) is a masterclass in taut, economical writing. The prose is cut-down and efficient. The plot clicks together like clockwork. And the subject matter is pleasingly dark. We’re in the world of noir crime where organised gangs rob and steal. Let’s start with the methodology of the driver. Perhaps this is not the most glamorous member of the criminal team but, when the robbery has gone down, and you run for the car, you remember the need for someone who can get you away. This does not, of course, mean drive like a stuntman holidaying from Fast and Furious. Not only do you want to arrive at your destination in one piece, you also want to do it without police cars hot on your trail. That means the driver must be able to get away without attracting too much attention. The mark of the true professional is never to be noticed. At least that’s the way Driver Z has built his career. He’s considered one of the best.

Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon

Of course, he should not have been tempted. When he ended up with the money in the car and no passengers, he should have gone quietly home and just waited for any survivors to contact him. The decision to disappear with the money was a mistake. But perhaps he can recover the situation. Now he has a gun, he may be able to return the money and get away with the woman he loves. Yes, it’s unfortunate the others have her. If they had stayed together. If he had not gone for the gun. . . There are always ifs.

The art of the good novella is to conceive of a plot that’s inherently limited. That way, you can set up the plot and run like Hell with it until you reach the end without having to draw breath. In this case, our driver gets into a situation not of his choosing. But when he makes the wrong decision, he gets to run, hide from enemies and, when it’s unavoidable, fight. Of course, he’s spent his life developing the power to stay calm under pressure. He’s a head over heart person. Except where his lady’s involved, of course. If he had not a care for her in the world, he would have taken the money and disappeared. But she’s pregnant and he’s committed. In a way, this relationship has come as something of a revelation to him. He didn’t have the best of childhoods. But as parenthood beckons, he begins to look on the idea of being a father as something desirable. So now he has to make a stand. No more the quick getaway. Now he needs his steady nerves in defence then attack.

The dangers he faces and whether he succeeds are waiting for you to find out. Reaping the Dark is one of the best supernatural horror novellas of the year so far. You should read it.

For reviews of other books by Gary McMahon, see:
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
The Concrete Grove
Dead Bad Things
Silent Voices

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

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)

December 4, 2013 Leave a comment

In Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013) (Season 13, episode 4) we find Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) depressed. He laid a trap for Marrascaud, the notorious thief and murderer. When the dust settled, the painting was stolen and the young woman who was bait wearing the jewelled necklace, was murdered. With a reassuring smile, he had promised the nervous young woman she would be safe. Her death is on his conscience and produces psychosomatic symptoms. He’s therefore driven to part with ten guineas for medical advice which is uncompromising. “Either get another case which puts your life in danger or give up the profession. You’ve had a good run. Yes, you’ve paid the price of not having a wife and children, but you’ve more than compensated in the good you’ve done. Go away! Better still, go on a holiday.” or words to that effect.

Leaving the doctor’s expensive surroundings, the agency car is waiting to drive him home. When he leaves it to Williams to drive him wherever he wants, the man breaks down and tells him a story of lost love. Overcome with quixotic romanticism, Poirot says he will travel to Switzerland to recover the young maid who has been so cruelly whisked away by a thoughtless mistress. As he waits for the funicular to take the guests up to the Hotel Olympus, the police warn him that Marrascaud is thought to be on his way to the hotel. It’s rumored the thief has stashed the loot in this retreat. For this to be one of the true labours of Hercules, our great detective must confront the greatest criminal Europe has seen for years. Indeed, in psychological (and mythical) terms, he’s the only one who can defeat this thief and murderer. Perhaps a Freudian psychologist should name a complex after Hercule to describe a man who sacrifices family and friendship in pursuit of one goal after another. For these purposes, it would not matter what the nature of each goal. It’s simply an obsession never to be beaten at whatever is attempted, no matter what the price to be paid in social terms. Obviously there have to be some boundaries in this pursuit. There are laws to be obeyed, the dictates of conscience to be observed. That Poirot himself may end up looking vain and smug when he succeeds despite these limitations, is just one element of the price to be paid.

The cast assembles for dinner

The cast assembles for dinner

Looking at this episode with a dispassionate eye, I think the script by Guy Andrews bites off more than it can comfortably chew for a single episode. As a collection of twelve unconnected short stories, it’s clever to be able to rework three of them together, “The Erymanthian Boar”, “The Arcadian Deer” and “The Stymphalean Birds” with lesser elements from “The Girdle of Hippolyta” and “The Capture of Cerberus”. But what starts well, increasingly lacks coherence as we work through to the end. The problem is structural. All our initial attention is focused on the malevolent Marrascaud as “The Erymanthian Boar”. “The Arcadian Deer” is grafted on as an improbable motive for Poirot to travel to this particular resort. The fact our master criminal has picked the same resort is a horrendous coincidence compounded by the presence of Harold Waring (Rupert Evans) whom we also meet in the set-up. He’s an awfully nice young man who works for the Foreign Office. When his boss gets into a little bit of bother, our innocent agrees to take the heat. So simply because the script needs a victim, he falls prey to “The Stymphalean Birds” scam, i.e. this element feels like padding to fill in time while we wait for Poirot to identify Marrascaud and recover the loot.

As to the Swiss resort, somewhat remarkably, the interiors and terrace scenes were shot in Halton House, Halton, Wendover, Buckinghamshire. Stock shots of the funicular at Saint Hilaire du Touvet were added where necessary with green screen work to create the illusion of snow-capped mountains in Switzerland. In the best Mousetrap tradition, all guests and staff are cut off from the outside world by an avalanche. This leave us with Katrina Samoushenka (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) under the care of Dr. Lutz (Simon Callow). Alice Cunningham (Eleanor Tomlinson) is revealed as the daughter of Countess Rossakoff (Orla Brady) which reignites old memories in our hero. Had they become lovers, Alice could have been Poirot’s child. Thematically we’re into the realm of redemption and the extent to which love should influence our decision-making. When he was young, Poirot let the young Countess Rossakoff go. He spared her not because he was her lover, but just because he was Poirot. It was the sense of what might have been had they not been set into their roles — there’s a nice touch with the cuff links at the end.

In this story, the unsophisticated and love-lorn driver stands in for the young Poirot. The driver’s naive loyalty and trust is rewarded once the couple overcomes the limitations of their social status and roles in life. We’ve seen an older overconfident Poirot fail to keep his promise to a young woman. Hence, even though he catches the villainous Marrascaud, it doesn’t make him feel any better. At its best, the arrest is nothing more than revenge. Fortunately, the world-weary Poirot finds a balm for his depression in the romantic love of these youngsters. This leaves us his final discussion with Countess Rossakoff. She asks him for one more favour. For a few seconds, he’s tempted. Had he chosen differently all those years ago, they might have shared a great love. Then his little grey cells reassert themselves. He sacrificed romantic love and the sentimentality that can go with it so he could become a better detective and, by his standards, a more honourable man. Once he might have redeemed her. Now she’s a career criminal and cannot avoid arrest this time. In a sense this makes a very appropriate penultimate story to Curtain. Here Poirot has all the evidence needed and let’s the law take its course. In Curtain, he confronts the limitation of his role if he’s forced to acquire sufficient evidence to gain a conviction in court. So what here begins with failure in brightly lit London opulence, explores options in a rather dark and sombre hotel, somewhat in need of refurbishment, and ends in bright sunshine back in London. There’s a different and altogether darker ending in Curtain.

Putting this together, The Labours of Hercules slowly runs out of steam as the plot limitations are exposed, but it succeeds rather admirably as a vehicle for exploring Hercule Poirot’s strengths and weaknesses as a human being. In metaphorical terms, the Swiss hotel that has seen better days captures the now fading grandeur of the detective whose pride went before his fall.

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

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

Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

Luther: Season 1, episode 5 opens with the mundane task of moving house. This can be such a strain so James Carrodus (Thomas Lockyer) and his wife Jessica (Donatienne Dupont) were prepared for bad things but perhaps not this. There they are, standing in an empty flat, when a truck from the same removal company that took their furniture away, pulls up outside. Sadly this is bad people who seem to think this art dealer has converted ill-gotten gains into diamonds through a money launderer. Having taken the trouble to come, they are not going to take no for an answer. Leave no stone unturned, they say in the idiom. So with his wife kidnapped, the husband comes into the police station asking for DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh). With the man he knows out of the office, DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) and the increasingly reliable DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) step forward and hear an edited story of his wife’s kidnapping. Luther persuades DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) to borrow diamonds from the evidence safe. This breaks the chain of evidence and will kill a current case dead if the loss is discovered. But they can surely keep hold of these diamonds, right?

Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) and John Luther (Idris Elba)

Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) and John Luther (Idris Elba)

Once alerted to the scale of the impending disaster, Reed goes to see Bill Winingham (Alexander Morton), the money launderer with whom he has a corrupt relationship and who set up the robbery through Tom Meyer (Danny Lee Wynter), his nephew. Meyer called in the American specialists, Daniel Sugarman (Ross McCall) and Evangeline Nixon (Ania Sowinski), to collect the diamonds. Reed tells the nephew that if he doesn’t rescue the woman, he will personally kill everyone in sight. This is the type of behaviour for which the British police is well known. Meanwhile the ransom drop with the borrowed diamonds goes wrong as the husband gives up the wife and runs off the the borrowed diamonds. Worse the nephew is intercepted as he rescues the kidnapped wife and both are killed by Daniel Sugarman. It’s a bad day for everyone when Reed is instructed to arrest the money launderer for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and several murders. Reed has been at the heart of the unfolding disaster. If he had trusted Luther to rescue the woman, she and the nephew would still be alive. He now has a problem. While Luther knows of his dodgy past and might be prepared to help, there are too many loose ends lying around which might lead back to him in any event. The episode now becomes almost entirely centred on Reed as he tries to decide what to do for the best.

Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh)

Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh)

On the romantic front, Mark North (Paul McGann) is taking a few days away from Zoe Luther (Indira Varna) so she can decide what she wants. She comes into the police station to tell John he’s surplus to requirements. This is just what he needs to hear at the height of this kidnapping. Distressed he calls on Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) and finally agrees with her that there is no love. As a natural contrarian, she confesses she killed Madson for unselfish reasons — because she couldn’t stand to see Luther hurt. At last we have a clear understanding between them.

So no more discussion of the plot. For the first time in this series, Neil Cross managed to get everything right through the simple expedient of focusing on the characters and letting the situation unfold at a natural pace. There’s real tension in the attempts to capture the kidnappers as they pick up the ransom. Similarly, the slow disintegration of Reed is beautifully handled. This character as played by Steve Mackintosh has been rather in the background up to this point but, as the threats of exposure grow more real, this turns into a very well constructed performance. Unlike others who have rather overacted when coming into the limelight, Mackintosh shows the slow decline into despair, toying with the possibility of suicide. But then he pulls himself back from the edge. His performance gives the episode a solid base from which Idris Elba can launch his more extravagant style. They make a good pair. The upshot of this episode leaves everything poised for the last episode in this season. For once, I’m actually looking forward to watching it.

For a review of the prequel novel, see Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross.

Reviews of the television episodes can be found at:
Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).

Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

Ghostman

There has always been a fascination with the personalities of those who break the law. In part, this is because we have sneaking admiration for those with the confidence to take on the “system”. We revere Robin Hood because, as the leader of a guerilla force using forested lands as concealment, he was able to run a communist revolution against the King and his barons by forcibly redistributing the wealth of the nobility to the downtrodden peasants. We fear other criminals because they directly threaten us. So in cultural and political terms, we accept law-breaking when it achieves the justice we expect from our governmental organisations. We approve of extra-judicial or extra-legal methods when the aims of the law-breakers match our own needs. There’s then a grey area inhabited by individuals like Billy the Kid or John Dillinger who have achieved legendary status even though their behaviour was probably antisocial to the majority. Their notoriety elevates them from mere criminals to potential heroes. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, governments were having serious public relations problems, and the reputation of banks was even lower. Hence, the activities of bootleggers and bank robbers like Dillinger were like adventure stories, lifting the spirits of the common people and distracting them from the drudgery of their lives. For the bootleggers and bank robbers, of course, this celebrity status was ultimately self-serving. They were selling us rotten booze at inflated prices because we were hopeless alcohol addicts and they were stealing from the banks who’ve been stealing from us, the people. So it’s perfectly possible for violent offenders to avoid the classification of evil and become heroes, celebrated in all the media. Using the word in its widest sense, outlaws can be heroes. You only have to think of Batman and other vigilantes to see how we embrace the extra-legal when we think governments are failing us.

Roger Hobbs

Roger Hobbs

In crime fiction, we have Parker by Richard Stark (Donald E Westlake) as probably the most prolific of the criminals as (anti)hero. More recently, we’ve had a professional hitman as protagonist in Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo, the Good Thief series by Chris Ewan, and so on. In the last six months, the cinema has produced a slew of amoral films including Arbitrage in which our “hero” kills his mistress and makes millions out of fraud, Snitch in which a father commits multiple crimes to get his criminal son out of jail, Pain and Gain in which three incompetents kidnap and murder people, and so on. It seems the creative have decided now is the right time to bring us stories from the darker side of the moral spectrum.

All of which brings me to Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Knopf, 2013) in which our protagonist is a seasoned criminal who has made a career out of robbery and, where necessary, murder. His true claim to fame within the criminal fraternity is his ability to blend in and disappear (like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, he lives completely off the grid). He’s the ultimately invisible man which gives him great flexibility to move around a city and achieve his aims. We start with him approached by a fixer he worked for five years ago when his misjudgment caused a big bank robbery to fail. He feels a sense of guilt and therefore agrees to help out to even the balance between them. This fixer has organised another robbery, this time at a casino, which has also gone very wrong. He needs our hero to pull the fat out of the fire. The intention had been to use the money from the casino to pay for drugs. Our hero is therefore to recover the stolen money and prevent the fixer’s late payment to the drug distributor from turning into a war. As introductory stories go, this is not unreasonable but, of course, nothing is quite what it seems.

During the course of the resulting story, our hero meets a whole range of people, only one of whom is explicitly on the side of “justice”. Everyone else is criminal to some degree, some quite violently and dangerously so. The navigation from start to finish against the clock is therefore fraught with difficulty as various people try to kill him and/or acquire the stolen money. So this book is not for everyone. There are descriptions of torture and varying degrees of violence. Since I insist on continuing to call him the hero, you will understand he’s actually out to get a result that matches his own ethical code. Although this need not have been the case, what he does is actually useful to local law enforcement agencies. That helps to sell him as a more acceptable “hero”. Indeed, I confess to finding the book a success despite the somewhat gratuitous Russian Roulette scene — I’m not wholly convinced he would go quite that far even though it’s a dangerous situation. The idea he’s a modern parallel of Aeneas is also interesting, i.e. that he’s being “saved” or saves himself so he can fulfill his destiny. But there’s a certain lack of coherence to the character and, despite all the fascinating detail, many of the plot elements are familiar. Against this I set the fact this is a first novel. Under the circumstances, I forgive the author. This is a genuinely great debut and I will be waiting to see where the next book takes him.

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

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