Category Archives: crime

A log jam of books

Several new novels have been piling up in the “having read waiting to post” pile. The new Barbara Kingsolver, the new Andrew Miller and the new Philip Teir.

 

These are each in their own way, brilliant. I regard Barbara Kingsolver as one of the best women writers from America in the last 25 years. She is, to my mind the Rachel Carson of the fiction world. Each of her many books has behind it a message for the planet. Whether it is the changing habits of Monarch butterflies (Flight Behaviour) or changing attitudes to evolution, there is behind each novel a scintilla of historical truth. But as with the butterflies, the changes are mirrored in the lives of the characters.

In Unsheltered, the reader is drawn into the nature of houses themselves, what does an old house tell us, if anything, about the people who lived in it before? In the present day, Willa is being given the horrific news that the house she and her family live in is no longer stable and should be pulled down.  Several rooms are already no longer inhabitable.

This leads back to the same block in the same town, but to a historic period when a teacher at the town school finds himself in difficulties with the strict Creationist beliefs of the founding patriarch of the new development, Vineland – Mr Charles Landis. Thatcher Greenwood, a biologist interested in the works of Charles Darwin, also lives in a house that is crumbling and he has not the means to pay for repairs, not least because the very building design – his father-in-law’s – was flawed from the start.

His neighbour, a botanist, is another “real-life” character in this novel. Mary Treat is a distinguished but mostly forgotten botanist who corresponded with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Charles Riley and Asa Gray, and whose contribution to the understanding of environment to the life of plants such as the Venus fly-trap were singular and admired by these (unjustly) more famous men. Charles Landis is also a true character, as is one of the more startling events in the book. 1868 was a rather turbulent time in America, it seems.

There are many layered meanings in the title, not only the shelter of the roof over our heads but the discoveries and obfuscations that often follow any new idea, when the certainties of old belief system are uncovered by the discoveries of new science.

This is a marvellous blend of fact and fiction, a seamless combination of past and present as exemplified by the houses, slowly sinking back into their foundations. If someone famous lived there, can the house be saved? There is much to savour in this wonderful book.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also an historical novel, set at the time of the Peninsula War.  Captain John Lacroix arrives home from the setback at Corunna. It is a love story, a murder story and a study of the human will to survive against all the odds. In modern parlance, Lacroix is suffering from PTSD, once he is back on his feet physically, he is expected to return to his regiment and the war with France. Instead, he turns North.

But all is not absolutely as it seems, grief and remorse are deeply lodged in his heart, and while he is fleeing from these emotions, there are other men who are in deadly pursuit. Merciless to himself, Lacroix is being pursued by an enemy even more desperate and implacable towards him.

Miller gets into the mind of his characters in a combined skill of both observation and description, so that the landscape and the weather are principals in the drama, as much as the human characters themselves.

The ending…it is sublime.

The Summer House is translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunally, she also translated his debut novel The Winter War.

Several families have left the city for their summer houses, near water and the sea. For Erik and Julia, it begins as a perfectly normal family holiday in her parents’ summer house, they have with them their two children, Alice and Anton. In a neighbouring house there seems to be a single woman, Kati, she does not make contact and seems to shun society.

Further away, but in a house that Julia knows well from her childhood and which she has included in her first novel, is a disparate group of neo-environmentalists. Led by Chris, they are of the view that climate change and its eventual outcomes are now inevitable, therefore peddling hope that we may find a solution in time to stem the catastrophe is pointless, so we should aim to live to the best of our abilities in the knowledge that we can change nothing, but to live with despair in a pre-industrial wilderness as hunter-gatherers with internet connection.

Among this group, is her childhood friend Marika. Summer progresses and things will never be the same again, for any of them.

This is not a plot driven novel, it is more a meditation upon the secrets and lies that every family has, little lies and big secrets – Erik has lost his job and not told Julia; she is still trying to decide whether their relationship is still worth keeping; Marika and Chris have a whole different set of problems, most of which they are trying to keep secret. It is about the barriers we put up to protect our masks, and the little things or events that happen that may eventually reveal the truth.

 

 

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Another novel for the long commute

Three Things About Elsie is the latest offering from Joanna Cannon, her previous novel was the surprising debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

Elsie x3This novel is a sort of mystery, but also a reflection upon life as seen by an elderly woman, Florence who has fallen in her room shortly after 4pm. She cannot get up, nor can she reach her call button.

She slowly goes through the people who may come to find her, and so the story unfolds. Who they are and why they might come to her room, what they will say when they find her on the floor.

The hours pass, the plot thickens, and in the intersectional chapters in “now-time” Florence notices things lying under the bed or the bureau where the cleaners have missed them. Some of these items have a place in the story, some of them are just dust.

Her story, and the story of the friends and carers in the sheltered accommodation where she finds herself, unwind slowly with a hint of menace as she is constantly being threatened with removal to Greenbanks, which when we do “visit” it later seems to be the worst sort of institutional care home imaginable. And then there is the strange man, the new resident, calling himself Gabriel Price, how is it possible that he is there when he drowned?

And how did twenty five Battenburg Cakes turn up in her cupboard? The reader is left unsure whether this is indeed a calculated act on the part of the threatening stranger, or batty Florence slowly losing her faculties. We can choose between the views of the care home staff who think one way and Florence’s friends who believe her version.

In the end, it is also a case of five degrees of separation. We find, as the reader does in From a Low and Quiet Sea, that all these people also have a tenuous connection way back in the past.

Heaven help us all!

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High Society murders

Actually, I am not sure how respectable it is to write crime genre fiction set in a real house among real people, all of whom are now dead, though other relatives still live today.

That said the Mitford novels of Jessica Fellowes are a rattlingly good yarn, suitable for beach or flight. Engaging, amusing and light. These are definitely more Agatha Christie than Scandi Noir.

Louisa Cannon gets a job as a nursey assistant at Astall Manor, she comes from a very difficult and poor background but is luckily helped into this post by having friends in high places.

In the first of these novels we get to see more of Louisa’s background and also how and where she met the policeman Guy Sullivan, who having ‘rescued’ her once ends up being involved in the two murders that are encompassed in these two books.

Jessica Fellowes is probably better known to readers of her compendium books about Downton Abbey, and these murder novels are set in the same period, the same milieu and among the same set, only this time the ‘set’ is the real family home of the Redesdale family and the famous Mitford sisters. In the 1920s, they were all still unmarried and living at home with Farve and Muv, Lord and Lady Redesdale; the sisters being Diana, Nancy, Pamela, Katherine, Unity and Deborah.

In the first of these books, Lady Mitford is pregnant with Deborah, one day in the distant future to become Duchess of Devonshire; Pamela and Nancy are reaching their teens, and are about to be launched on Society.

The real life Pamela is the least notorious of the sisters, she married a scientist, war hero, millionaire called Derek Jackson; Nancy is the novelist who famously mined her own family in her novels The Pursuit of Love and  Love in a Cold Climate (both very similar in tone to the Fellowes books without the bloodshed).

In these two novels, the other sisters feature as faces in the nursery and do not have much of a role in the stories that unfold, so far. The same goes for Tom, the only son who is away at Eton and was (in real life) killed in action during the Second World War while serving in Burma. Though I am fairly sure that Louisa Cannon and Guy Sullivan will make a team that solves another murder at some point. Whether they will centre around the same family remains to be guessed at.

 

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London Film Festival 2018/9

Penultimate day, penultimate film, how did it all go so fast?

Today my choice was from the Thrill section: “nerve-shredders that’ll get your adrenalin pumping and keep you on the edge of your seat”. El Angel is billed as having excessive violence, to the extent that there was even a warning at the entrance of the screening.

El Angel

So I was thinking that this would be way beyond my comfort zone. I was prepared for the worst but after several Scandi Noir series and the Netflix series Narcos, this was not the worst I have seen by far. But while this has a high body count, the amoral gangster with a cherubic face was not especially violent.

On a day when the torture and death of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi is slowly leaking out into the media, the true life story of Carlos Robiedo Puch hardly touches the sides. Brilliantly portraying the angel faced Carlitos, Lorenzo Ferro bursts on to the screen as a sizzlingly sexual predator, more lynx than lion.

It is in Carlitos’ calm, dreamlike deniability of his crimes, that makes this such an extraordinary film. His robberies are excessive, and begin even before he leaves school, but to start with he is a cat burglar without a gun; once his hands are on a gun (or two things become ugly, but still casual.

However terrible the reality, it is the thoughtlessness of it that makes this film so watchable. In the jewellery store heist with his partner in crime, Ramon, he puts on a pair of pearl earrings and admires himself in a mirror and tells Ramon to slow down, the scene is so seductive, and even beguiling – because he is enjoying himself so much.

The denouement has the same careless rapture: Carlitos is mindlessly dancing to music, graceful and abandoned – it is the exterior view that dramatically alters this perspective.

Luis Ortega has achieved a masterpiece here, a stylish and fast-paced biopic. The choice of music is sensational.

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London Film Festival 2018/8

Three glorious films today: Olivia Coleman strutting her stuff as Queen Anne in The Favourite, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant as a criminal pair in the true story of the forger, Lee Israel and John McEnroe as himself in an instructional sports documentary.

Favourite

Whether entirely accurate historically, this was a lovely romp between three very different women and female actors. Rachel Weisz played Lady Malborough, the wife of the British warrior of Blenheim and the French Wars; Emma Stone played the wickedly scheming Abigail Hill, and Olivia Coleman the temperamental Queen.

Everything about this film was wonderful: gorgeous costumes, ridiculously extravagant hair – on the men especially – and lovely locations. Hampton Court for the kitchens and Hatfield House for much else.

The film was played for laughs, though there is a bitingly savage satire going on as one side plays off against the other, with a mixture of toadying, blackmailing and rampant sex.

Queen Anne, in history, was an unfortunate woman. She reigned over a newly unified country, Great Britain; her husband George of Denmark gave her many children all of whom died in infancy, then he himself died  in 1708.

The statue marking her visit to St Paul’s Cathedral on the creation of the Acts of Union between England, Scotland and Ireland still stands outside the cathedral, and is more often than not mistaken for Queen Victoria.

She presided over a two-party parliament, which was in its early manifestation and not entirely successful, since the Queen had controlling influence over finance and the cabinet. After her husband’s death she came increasingly under the influence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and as Sarah was of the same persuasion as her husband, that the war with France should continue until they sued for peace, this meant great increases in taxes.

Meanwhile Sarah’s cousin, the cunning little vixen, was conniving with the Opposition to have the taxes reduced, the Marlboroughs disgraced and Lord Godolphin’s Tory government deposed.

The occasional use of a fish-eye lens gives this film a strange sense of the surreal, which accentuates some of the more extremely scandalous behaviour of the Court, right up to the top levels.

My second film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another example of a good actor portraying, sympathetically, a seriously transgressive character. This film is the true story of a woman who forged and sold over 400 letters, purporting to be by celebrities like Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Emily Brice. When that activity came to grief, she began another career, replacing genuine letters in serious archives with copies. It is hard to know which of these two activities was the more reprehensible.

Forgive

Cultural forgery, whether paintings or belles lettres is a very serious matter, and so it must have been challenging to make Lee Israel in any way tolerable, and yet the portrayal is one of empathy. She was clearly a lonely, unfulfilled woman and not without talent; she was a published author, but that source of income had dried up and her agent suggested she find some other way to make money.

An accidental find, while doing genuine research, leads to a highly successful source of income, with Jack Hock as her partner in crime.

Later on, Jack cooperates with the FBI investigation and Lee is caught  At her trial she admits to having had the time of her life. She shows no remorse, only fury when she sees one of her own Dorothy Parker forgeries, authenticated as genuine, for sale at five times the price she was paid for it. She notified the seller, with a caustic letter of suitably Parkian vitriol.

The sports documentary which followed these two was odd, but brilliant. Hard to describe, but infinitely worth catching if you can.

McEnroe

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London Film Festival 2018/5

A police procedural with a difference. Destroyer is a rather dark film in which two strands collide. The work of a policewoman and the responsibilities of a mother.

Destroyer

The film starts with the discovery of a body, shot several times and with a distinguishing tattoo. Who is he and who killed him? While the police are looking at the body in the early morning, along staggers a detective who looks drunk, possibly, and as if she has been sleeping in her car, definitely:  Nicole Kidman  playing LAPD detective, Erin Bell, with a decidedly chequered past. Which the film reveals in a series of backstory events and present day angst.

Completely brilliant, and one of the many films made under the direction of a woman (Karyn Kusama) in this year’s festival, this is tense and also quite violent. Erin Bell is an angry woman, but mostly at herself. By the end of the film, the title gives up more than one answer. Surely this will have UK distribution.

The second film of the day also had a good deal of familial anger and angst. Keep Going, a French film made in Morocco, though set in Kyrgyzstan, and loosely based on a novel of the same name.

Kepp going

The relationship between the young man and the young woman is rather ambiguous at first, but soon it is apparent that it is a mother and her son; riding across Kyrgyzstan for the Och horse festival.

The palpable anger in everything the young man says or does, becomes more and more unpredictable. The only secure element is his affection for the two horses.

For a director whose earlier films have been almost claustrophobic in the intimate spaces that he uses, this open landscape with sweeping views and beautiful scenery is something of a departure; the two cross it on horseback and camp beside a wood fire each night, though seemingly oblivious to the land they are travelling through, so intense is their discomfort with each other. At one point they agree “il est beau”: an understatement, it is absolutely gorgeous.

Intimate relationships is what Joachim Lafosse films best, the gradual development, in this case, of love between a mother – who abandoned her son to the care of his grandfather – and the son – whose life is steadily going off the rails. It is slow to develop into anything at all, except antagonism. Samuel is a moody teenager, cut off from his environment by his iPod, which is permanently drilling through his ears.

The film music swings, sometimes quite violently between a proto-classical vibe, with a lot of oboe and a sudden burst of modern, possibly House, music – and we see Samuel high on a cliff top wildly dancing to an insistent beat. Music that his mother, Sybille, cannot hear obviously.

She meanwhile, records her thoughts in a black notebook. This too, will almost certainly get UK distribution as Lafosse has a track record of successful films.

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London Film Festival 2018/2

UnsettlingThe first film that I saw today was a documentary, Unsettling. The clue is in the title, since this was an exploration of how people feel living, as they do, in the West Bank settlements in Israel/Palestine.

Iris Zaki set up three cameras and had several conversations with young people who had either been born in Tekoa or had moved there. The cameras were deliberately unmanned, she set them running together, two on the face of the subject and one on her. In the Q&A she revealed that the conversations went on for up to an hour or an hour and a half, and covered numerous topics: dating, childcare, schools and also the feelings of the settlers, their awareness of the Palestinian village just nearby, and whether they met each other.

There are panoramic landscapes and pictures of the settlement and indeed of the Palestinian village nearby; the inevitable queue of workers at the Tekoa checkpoint; plenty of barbed wire. Houses tenaciously clinging to the hillsides, like their inhabitants.

It was very important for Iris that the conversations were not conducted like an interview, which was part of the decision not to have a cameraman. The table with two chairs was outside a local shop, which also seemed to sell coffee and other drinks.

This is an important film because it does give a very open view of the vast differences of opinion between the people living in this one place. Tekoa was settled first in around 1978, and deliberately invited both strictly Orthodox and non practising Jews to live there. Now those people are elderly and it is their children whom Iris most wanted to speak to.

She rented a flat in Tekoa; it is clear from the beginning of the film that she is not entirely welcome and it does take quite a while before anyone will engage with the project, but when they do, one can see what a very complex, diverse and difficult situation they have to deal with.

Some people are fearful, some arrogantly entitled, some conflicted themselves – one young man who was not religious actually felt bad about living there, but the schools were good and his wife had family and friends, so he decided that they could live there, but not in a new house – in other words he was not prepared to advance or enlarge the existing settlement; on the other hand, a young woman who had grown up in Hebron had no empathy for the previous inhabitants of the land, they were Arabs and they had no business to be on “our” land; there was another remarkable woman who had even been attacked and stabbed by an Arab – this she saw as a message from God, a way of making her think differently and to act differently, and so she and her family are actively seeking rapprochement with Palestinians, indeed after the attack a group of Palestinians came and prayed in her house and asked for forgiveness; the shopkeeper who had let Iris set up more or less on his premises, had grown up with Arabs, his family farm was mostly worked by Palestinians, even to this day.

While filming, a Rabbi and his family were shot at, the Rabbi was killed and the mother and two children were seriously injured; then Iris discovered that her neighbour in Tekoa was their eldest daughter. This too, put another perspective on the film.

This is a thought provoking film. It is provocative but not a polemic. Unsettling indeed.

The Old Man

This is brilliant and there are so many reasons why everyone should aim to see it. The casting is unparalleled. Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek had never acted together before, indeed hardly knew each other and yet the rapport between them is tender and authentic; the cops are a wondrous bunch, straight out of Keystone school of policing, but Casey Affleck as the detective, John Hunt, is understated, determined and finally frustrated.

While filming was actually going on Robert Redford announced that he was retiring and if this is really his last film, it could hardly be better. It is an all round heist caper, based on a true account that Redford read about in the New York Times and thought would be fun to make.

The cinematography is brilliant at evoking the times, but also captures something of the essence of Redford’s entire career. Quite outstanding and a highly, exceptional and poignant swan song. Do not miss it. UK distribution will start on December 7th.

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