Friday, October 31, 2014

Review of Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Mad and the Bad

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

I just finished a real binge of history reading and am finally back to mysteries. My first mystery read in about a month was a very forgettable old Golden Age mystery. The less said about that the better.

But then it was on to Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Mad and the Bad. Manchette, who died in 1995 when he was only in his early 50s, was said to have saved French crime fiction from the then-dominant fusty and formulaic police procedurals. Manchette's style is spare, violent noir.

I shouldn't like Manchette; I'm addicted to characters, but Manchette's characters are stripped down, serving a plot that rushes on as fast and devastating as a bullet. Several of Manchette's books have been made into graphic novels because the graphic novel style meshes so well with Manchette's stories. Regardless of whether I should like them, I do like Manchette's books, very much. Unfortunately, not all have (yet) been translated into English.

All of Manchette's books that are available in English are about contract killers. In Three to Kill, Georges Gerfaut, a company executive with a dull work and family life, witnesses a murder and is then pursued by the assassins. Georges decides to turn the tables on them––and his life. In The Prone Gunman, Martin Terrier is a hired gun who's had enough. He wants to retire, go back home with his savings and marry his old love. Be careful what you wish for.

I read Three to Kill and The Prone Gunman years ago. I was excited to see that New York Review Books was coming out with The Mad and the Bad (2014; translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith). This was one of Manchette's earliest novels, and is doesn't have quite the spare, searing style of the later novels, but it'll do.

Julie is a young woman who's been living in a country estate home for the mentally ill for the last five years. As the novel opens, a limo comes up the long drive to the estate, and the redheaded Michael Hartog emerges. He's come to pick up Julie and take her to London, where she will be the latest in a line of nannies for Hartog's young orphaned nephew, Peter.

Why in the world would Hartog hire Julie? It's not a mystery. We quickly learn that Hartog has hired an English hitman, Thompson, to kill Peter and Julie, and make it look like an insane Julie has done the deeds. Why Hartog wants to do this is not explained; I suppose it must be because Hartog's vast wealth all comes from Peter's parents, who were killed in an accident, and Hartog doesn't want Peter to get any of it.

Manchette doesn't explain the "why" of the plot because he only has 163 pages to get right into some of the wildest, goriest, and just flat-out crazy action ever in a thriller. Thompson seems an odd choice for a contract killer. He is practically crippled by a bleeding ulcer and seems at least a soupçon more unhinged than Julie. He has also hired a pair of colleagues whom no discerning contract killer would want as associates. But it's all grist for this hallucinogenic swirl of violence.

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Mad and the Bad isn't as good as either Three to Kill or The Prone Gunman, but it was a wild ride and nothing like anything else I've read this year––or expect to read anytime soon.

I want to mention one other thing about this NYRB edition of The Mad and the Bad, and that is its introduction by crime writer James Sallis, who is probably best known for his Lew Griffin series. This introduction reminded me of a story from college that a classmate told me. He was in a literature class, with the students and teacher in an intense discussion of the symbolism and deep meaning of Moby Dick. But then one guy, Mike, commented that he thought it was just a simple sea story. That probably sounds like a complete non sequitur, but stay with me.

In the introduction, Sallis writes:

Manchette's profoundly leftist, distinctly European stance may be something of a problem for American readers. Like many of his generation, Manchette was influenced by the Situationist Guy Debord, whose theories, elaborated in The Society of the Spectacle, were everywhere during France's 1968 insurrections. Situationists held that capitalism's overweening successes came only at the expense of increased alienation, social dysfunction, and a general degradation of daily life; that the acquisition, exchange, and consumption of commodities had forcefully supplanted direct experience, creating a kind of life by proxy; and that liberation might be found in fashioning moments that reawakened authentic desires, a sense of adventure, a ransom from dailiness.

And further:

For Manchette the world is a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs––be they leftist, reactionary, terrorist, police, or politicians––compete relentlessly; one in which tiny groups of individuals, "torn to pieces by the enemy and sodomized by [their] own leaders," stay afloat by clinging to the flotsam. In his work he alludes to and parodies literary writers such as Baudelaire and Stendhal, juxtaposes the vulgar and the precious, enjambs depictions of quotidian life against scenes of such extreme and often implicit violence as to call into question all the myriad fictions of bourgeois, accepted existence.

Well, alrighty then. I'm glad I only skimmed Sallis's intro before diving into the book, or I might have been too intimidated, thinking that I was going to be challenged by a revolutionary political and literary manifesto. Instead, I was like Mike and Moby Dick. He read a simple sea story and I read a graphic noir thriller. I didn't experience the levels of meaning Sallis did, but this bourgeois got all I wanted from the book.

Oh, and by the way, Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

In Memoriam

Long before Saint Patrick planted his staff in Ireland, pre-Christian Celtic people populated much of Europe, and it was their custom to divide the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the first day of the year fell on the day that would later correspond to our November 1st. The date marked the onset of winter and folks hunkered down for the lean times.

The festival observed at this time was the most significant of the Celtic year and it was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). It was during this specific day that the ghosts of the dead were able to mix with the living, because it was at Samhain the souls of the dead travelled to the other world. As Christianity spread thoughout the world, the church's policy was to mingle ancient rites with Christian holy days, and November 1st became the Christian Feast of All Saints, while October 31st, All Hallows Eve, eventually came to be called Halloween.

Mexico and other countries around the world call this day the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), and they trace their holidays back to an Aztec festival honoring the goddess Mictecacihuatl––but the holiday focuses on honoring the deceased. According to Wikipedia, there are similar celebrations in Asian and African cultures. Some cultures honor their dead by eating their brains to absorb their lives and memories. In Papua New Guinea this practice was endemic and so was the degenerative disease called Kuru––much better known to us in a form called Mad Cow disease.

I'll opt for a more straightforward way to honor the death of those mystery writers who passed on to the other world this year, and to thank them for providing enrichment to many lives. Here it is––the timeless in memoriam list:

Jeremiah Healy (1948-2014)

Healy wrote two series that I have enjoyed over the years. John Francis Cuddy, a Boston-area PI, was Healy's best-known character. Cuddy began his career as a military police lieutenant in the dark days of the Vietnam conflict. He made his living solving cases that had fallen through the cracks of the judicial system. He was honest and of good character, but he could be violent if it was called for. Later, under the pseudonym Terry Devane, Healy penned a short series about lawyer Mairead O’Clare that I am looking forward to reading.

But in his real life, Jerry had his own demons to fight. From Sandy Balzo, his wife: "My heart breaks to send you all this news. As you may know, Jerry has battled chronic severe depression for years, mostly controlled by medication, but exacerbated by alcohol. Last night he took his own life."

Joseph D. McNamara (1935-2014)

Before McNamara became the author of several crime novels, he walked a beat on the mean streets of Harlem. Along his way, he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. After a long and illustrious career as a police chief in California, he wrote novels dubbed "cop noir." Many of his novels deal with the sin that Dante considered worse than murder––betrayal by someone trusted.

Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014)

Dorothy Salisbury Davis's first novel was published in 1949. She specialized in the psychological thriller, laced with morality, motives and manners. Davis could appreciate the evil minds that lurked behind the façade of an ordinary face. She was one of the founders of Sisters in Crime, an organization whose goal was to overcome the tendency for many reviewers to concentrate on male writers. She wrote more than 25 novels in a writing career that lasted more than five decades.

Martin Meyers (1934-2014)

My first acquaintance with Meyers was through the series he wrote in collaboration with his wife, Annette Meyers, under the name Maan Meyers. It took place in colonial New York City during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. These stories really captured my imagination and I was never able to get hold of all the books in the series. The series began with The Dutchman and the main protagonist was Pieter Tonneman, the last Dutch sheriff of New Amsterdam and the first sheriff of New York. Meyers wrote other series as well, but it's the Dutchman series that I will read again.

Lou Allin (1945-2014)

Authors who find their way into writing after many years have passed pursuing other interests always impress me. Allin's first mystery book was published when she was 55 years old. Awesome! Her first series features Belle Palmer, a realtor in Northern Ontario. And her second is about the activities of Holly Martin, a corporal in the RCMP on Vancouver Island. I have some of these on my TBR shelf because the location, the job and the woman herself intrigue me.

Sadly, it was pancreatic cancer that ended Allin's career. Her last book, Contingency Plan, won the 2013 Arthur Ellis Award for best novella.

James Thompson (1964-2014)

Thompson was best known for his amazing novels that fell under the category of Finnish noir. He wrote the Inspector Kari Vaara novels, the first of which, Snow Angels, was a sensation and was short-listed for the Anthony and Edgar Awards. Vaara was the police chief in a town in Lapland, but moved on to Helsinki where he was a homicide inspector.

An anthology edited by Thompson and containing one of his stories, Helsinki Noir, will be published posthumously in November. His last book, Helsinki Dead, was scheduled for release but it was unfinished at the time of his unexpected death.

Mary Stewart (1916-2014)

Stewart was one of the most widely-read fiction authors of our time. While she was well known for her Arthurian fantasies, she also made her mark as the author of romantic suspense novels, which took place in exotic locations. Her books continue to be republished because interest in her stories hasn't waned.

My favorites are The Moon Spinners and Airs Above the Ground.

James Melville (1931-2014)

Melville's real name was Roy Peter Martin. After a varied career in teaching and politics, he travelled to the Far East, representing Great Britain as a cultural diplomat. In 1979, he went to Japan as the head of the British Council and there he began writing his fascinating series featuring Tetsuo Otani, the Superintendent of Police in Kobe. Melville presented a portrait of Japanese life caught as it was between the drive for modernism and the desire to preserve a very traditional past.

Ironically, he died just as Ostara Crime publishing was bringing his books back into print. I always felt his books were keepers and I still have copies of several of them.

Under the name Hampton Charles, he took on the responsibility of continuing the Miss Seeton mysteries originally written by Heron Carvic. These gentle stories were loosely based on Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series.

Aimée Thurlo (1951-2014)

Partnered by her husband David, Aimée co-wrote three different mystery series, each chronicling the adventures of protagonists who were very different from each other. The first featured Ella Clah, an ex-FBI agent now working for the Navaho police on a reservation.

The second starred Sister Agatha, a nun who was once an investigative journalist, and this made for an unusual approach to crime solving. More recently, they wrote about an extraordinary vampire police officer in New Mexico called Lee Nez. These books are something I'd like to get my teeth into.

Anthony Bruno (1952 – 2014)

Bruno was known for his series of "Bad" novels––Bad Guys, Bad Blood, Bad Luck and more, featuring two FBI agents on the town in New York City. Later he wrote about partner parole violator searchers in New Jersey, Loretta Kovacs and Frank Marvell. Bruno is also the author of the crime novel Seven, based on the Brad Pitt-Morgan Freeman movie. Bruno's life was cut short by a cerebral hemorrhage.

Even though they were not writers of crime fiction, it is important to honor two great authors who were known to readers and non-readers alike.

Poet and writer Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014) died at the age of 86, leaving a legacy of greatness that included writing, acting, lecturing and civil rights activism. She wrote: "All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated."

One of her best-known works is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I still recall the impact the book had on me when I read it.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez (1927-2014) was a Nobel Laureate whose death was mourned around the world. He was widely recognized as the voice that enlightened us about the passions, superstitions, violence and social inequality of Latin America. Two of his well-known books are Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

“Fiction was invented the day Jonah arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale."

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Quickie: Lin Enger's The High Divide

I'm in that frantic state some of us reach when preparing to hit the road: dashing from room to room, grabbing clothes and stuffing them willy nilly into a duffel bag with one hand, while watering houseplants with the other hand. Whirling around my legs are the dogs, hysterical now that the quilt they use when I take them along has been put in the car.

Before we lay rubber down the driveway, I want to tell you about a book I read last night, Lin Enger's The High Divide (Algonquin Books, September 2014). It's about a man named Ulysses Pope, who disappears from his home on the Wisconsin prairie on a quest for redemption, and the quests of his wife and their two young sons to find him.

Their 1886 journeys are traceable on a sketched map of the State of Minnesota and the Dakota and Montana Territories in the book's front. Ten years earlier, Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment blundered into the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana. Cheyenne, Crow, and Arapahoe Indians have been driven onto reservations, where promised provisions from the U.S. government don't always arrive. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show is making annual appearances. Buffalo, which once roamed the West in uncountable herds, have been shot for sport from passing trains and killed by market hunters––and now number in the hundreds.

The disappearance of Ulysses is related to his baptism by an itinerate preacher. Rather than feeling purged, Ulysses feels called to answer for more than his mortal soul. He and his Danish wife, Gretta, love each other, but Ulysses isn't by nature a talker, and Gretta doesn't by nature invite him to confide. While Ulysses feels guilty decades later over the accidental death of a girl's collie, the beautiful and strong-willed Gretta has "a ruthless capacity for self-protection," rarely allowing herself to think about her losses or committing her sympathies beyond a point at which they might cause her damage. Without Ulysses, Gretta looks for more work. Six weeks go by, and then her sons, 16-year-old Eli and his sickly younger brother, Danny, take off without a word. Gretta, abandoned by most of her friends and her men, and hounded for money and favors by the repulsive Mead Fogarty, owner of the title on the Popes' house, has had enough. She heads out to find Ulysses, Eli, and Danny––and discovers how little she knows about the man she calls her husband.

The High Divide is an exploration of guilt and redemption, the corrosive character of terrible secrets, the nature of home, and the costs of racial hatred and traditional gender roles, set against the backdrop of the American West in the 1800s. It casts several historical events in such personal terms that it brought me to tears. There's no mistaking the western nature of this gripping book, but you don't need to love westerns to enjoy it. Its lyrical writing describes a man with a face "like a baked apple, riven and dark, who spent the better part of an hour cleaning his teeth with a length of horsehair and then his toenails with a Bowie knife." A boy reminds Gretta of a muskrat, with a "nose flat against his face and a mouth perennially ajar, as if he lacked the energy to close it." Stars in the western sky are so thick "some giant hand might have skimmed cream from the pail and tossed it up against the firmament."

The High Divide reminded me a bit of Patrick deWitt's Booker-shortlisted novel, The Sisters Brothers (reviewed here), and James McBride's The Good Lord Bird (see review here) in their depictions of how tough life could be in earlier America. It's too bad some folks made it worse than tough.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Horror for Halloween

As the harvest season ends and huge combines begin clearing the fields, I always think of the legend of the Corn King. The Corn King is a ruler who is sacrificed ritually every year to fertilize the earth, so she will bear a rich harvest. He has appeared in almost every culture, from ancient Egypt and Sumeria through the current day. Author Stephen King used the legend in his short story, Children of the Corn, on which a very creepy video series was later based. King has also made a distinction between "inside horror," based deep in human motivations and fears, and "outside horror," based on non-human threats, such as zombies, ghosts, aliens and the like. For me, the inside sources of horror are always far more frightening than external monsters.  

One of the most disturbing tales based on this legend is Thomas Tryon's novel, Harvest Home. Originally published in 1973, it is out of print, but available digitally. Beth and Ned Constantine decide to leave the stresses of city life and find a nice rural setting in New England, with their defiant and asthmatic teenage daughter, Kate. Cornwall Coombe seems the perfect spot––tranquil farm country set in rolling hills, with a friendly, welcoming community.

There are a lot of characters to track in this book, and the reader is always way ahead of poor oblivious Ned, but despite what now seems like a rather trite plot (many authors have used it since), Tryon was first with the story––and best, many think. And the actual ending is so terrible that you will not be able to forget it for years. If you enjoy slowly building suspense, with an unexpected and unforgettable ending, you might want to have a look. Harvest Home is an excellent story of "inside" horror, perfect reading for a gloomy October day.

Another much-loved classic, never out of print, is Henry James's short novel, Turn of the Screw. The narrator, now deceased, has written the tale to a friend who reads it aloud. The narrator is a governess to two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, in a gloomy suburban mansion. Their guardian is their uncle, who lives in town and does not want to be bothered with the care of the children. The narrator (never named) gradually comes to suspect that her charges are sometimes possessed by two ghosts, those of her predecessor and her lover, who sometimes indulge in sexually suggestive behaviors. Can this be true, or is she herself going mad? While this is actually a novella, only about 100 pages, it is by no means a quick read. James is as dense as Dickens to read.

Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart is another first person narration by a questionably sane teller. The narrator has murdered an old man––we never really know why. "I loved the old man. He had never wronged me! For his gold I had no desire!"  The old man had a "clouded, blue, vulture-like eye" that apparently so offended or terrified the narrator that he meticulously planned and executed a murder, afterwards dismembering and hiding the body. But the old man had let out one scream, and suspicious neighbors later called in the police. Part of the general weirdness of this story is its dissociation. We never learn the setting, or the actual relationship between murderer and victim. Poe himself had wild bouts of instability and drunkenness, and most of his stories are very dark indeed.

I have never read Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror or seen the movie, but have the book in my queue for reading this fall. Probably it won't keep me up for weeks. While I'm generally quite skeptical of things that go bump in the night, that whole ugly story of the butchery of one family and the haunting of another in that pretty suburban house gives me the cauld grue. And some buildings do have presences.

I can far too easily imagine myself in Kathleen Lutz's position, offered a mansion at an incredible discount because murder had been done there. I'm a skeptic, not a believer in ghosts, I'm mostly sure. Might I have jumped at the chance?  Quite likely, a bargain in waterfront Dutch Colonials doesn't come along very often. Would you have bought it?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Crime on Your TV

I've been in a little bit of a mystery reading drought for a few weeks. Instead, I'm on a nonfiction binge. But I have been watching some crime/espionage on TV. Here's my take.

Two Lives

Libby Fischer Hellmann, whose latest novel is Nobody's Child, recommended I see the movie Two Lives, which was on Netflix. And she was right; I can't stop thinking about it.

A little background first. You all know that just one element of Nazi lunacy was their conviction that "Aryans" were superior and that the key to Germany's future was to make a lot more of them. (And have a whole lot fewer of non-Aryans, but that's another story.) Germans were exhorted to have loads of children, and not being married was not a big deal.

The SS founded the Lebensborn movement in Germany and some of its conquered countries, and encouraged women to have racially pure (as they saw it) children in Lebensborn hospitals. The babies would then usually go to a Lebensborn facility and be adopted by selected families, often SS families, in Germany.

There were more Lebensborn children born in Norway than any other country, including Germany. Many of these children were born as a result of romances between Norwegian women and occupying German soldiers. Women in Norway who agreed to allow their children to be adopted didn't realize that they would be sent to Germany.

After World War II, the Norwegian government tried to repatriate the children to Norway, but they weren't entirely successful. This was also a hugely complicated matter, because in the aftermath of the war, women who had had relationships with German soldiers were scorned; thousands were actually arrested as collaborators and often physically attacked. Their children were also frequently mistreated by neighbors and in school.

Two Lives is set mostly in Bergen, Norway, in 1990. Katrine Myrdal lives on the coast in a four-generation house. Katrine's daughter, Anne, is a law student with a baby, and Katrine's mother, Åsa Evensen, has come to live in the house temporarily to help out with the baby. The only man in the house is Bjarte Myrdal, Katrine's husband. Judging from his work attire of a blue double-breasted uniform with loads of gold braid, he's a high-ranking officer in Norway's navy.

It looks like a good life in Bergen. The family is loving, Katrine has an interesting-looking creative job, and she spends some time early every morning sea kayaking in the bay. Into this idyll comes a crusading young lawyer, Sven Solbach. Sven has come to talk to Katrine and Åsa, because Åsa's love affair during the war with a German soldier resulted in Katrine, who was sent to Germany soon after her birth.

Sven wants Åsa and Katrine to be his splashiest clients in a human-rights lawsuit complaining of the treatment of war children and their mothers. He thinks the time is right because, in this year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lebensborn facility records from East Germany are now coming available. And Åsa and Katrine have a particularly compelling story, because Katrine was reunited with her mother as a young woman, years after the war's end. She managed to escape East Germany by stealing a rowboat and pushing off from the coast in bad weather. Only after passing out from hypothermia and exhaustion was she rescued by Danish fishermen.

Katrine just wants Sven to go away, but Anne is interested. As a law student, she finds it an interesting case, and of course it's a fascinating part of her family history. Sven's a good-looking guy, too, which doesn't hurt. In quick flashbacks, we learn that there is a mystery about Kristine; something that she doesn't want anyone, including her family, to know about. As the flashbacks go on, we learn just what that is and the film becomes a tense thriller.

I can't say much more without being spoiler-y. I'll just say that the end titles to the film reveal some shocking historical facts behind this compelling story.

I can't stop thinking about the film, not just because it's a gripping thriller, but because the crisis for Katrine and her family is such a human one, even though it's based on a sensational history. Juliane Köhler, who plays Katrine, is tremendously talented, but the real scene stealer is Liv Ullmann, as her mother, Åsa. Nobody can do so much without a word, and Ullmann's face in her entirely silent final scene will break your heart more thoroughly than the most eloquent words ever could.

The Mysteries of Laura

Last month, we had an old friend visiting, and one evening we decided to try out the first episode of the new series, The Mysteries of Laura, starring Deborah Messing, of Will and Grace fame. The first episode was more or less of a disaster.

The writers went way over the top to make sure we understood that this Laura character isn't anything like any of the characters Messing has played in the past. Laura is an NYPD homicide detective, the best in her precinct. And a good thing, too, because she's out of control in every other way. She's a complete slob (says I, as I sit here in my ancient, fraying track pants, dabbing at the coffee I just dribbled down my front), shoots the ear off a bad guy holding a knife to a bystander when she's too impatient to wait for the hostage negotiators, and she uses police resources to help her find a school and caretakers for her out-of-control twin boys.

When I glanced over at my husband and the friend, they were shaking their heads and looked like they were itching to grab the remote. But I've continued watching, because I kind of like (relate to?) the Laura character and the other cast members, the show can be comical, there are some very interesting NYC location shots, and I'm pretty much of a sucker for police dramas.

The subsequent episodes have been less cartoonish than the first, and the whodunnits fairly interesting, with one major caveat. Each of the first three episodes falls right into one of my TV crime drama whodunnit convention traps, which I described in my "How to Watch TV Crime Dramas" post back in February of 2013. The writers really need to make it just a teensy bit harder for the viewer to figure out whodunnit. If they do, the show may turn out to be a keeper.

How to Get Away with Murder

I know viewers often have to suspend their disbelief when watching TV, and I'm usually able to do that if I like the cast or if a show has an entertaining comedic or dramatic energy. But there is a limit, and ABC's new How to Get Away with Murder sprinted way past my limit in its first episode.

The series is set at the very definitely fictional top-tier Middleton Law School. Shiny new first-year law students pack the auditorium for that classic entry-level course, Criminal Law. In strides their professor, the leather-clad, cold-eyed and tough-talking Annalise Keating, played by Oscar winner Viola Davis.

The prof tells the students that they won't be learning theories, case-law principles, analysis or any of that kind of thing. (You know, the stuff they actually do teach in top-tier law schools). No, instead they'll be learning how to get away with murder, the way it's done in a real criminal law practice––like the one she operates in her spare time from teaching. Apparently, the good professor isn't bothered with the need to publish, like most law professors.

Professor Keating also tells her students that they will be competing to help her with actual cases and that the four best competitors will get the chance to work with her in her firm. Excuse me, but didn't I see that plot line in Legally Blonde? It wasn't a problem there, since that was a comedy, but please don't ask me to swallow it in a drama.

Anyway, off we go with law students ruthlessly stomping all over each other in their mad scramble to get this job. Go ahead, skip your other classes (with Professor Keating's encouragement, which I'm sure her colleagues appreciate), use unethical and downright illegal methods to come up with help for her trial. That will be excellent practice for a month from now, when flash-forwards tell us that four of the best and the brightest in the class will have to figure out just how they themselves can get away with a real murder. Oy.

Show creator Shonda Rhimes is legendary for her shows' (Grey's Anatomy and Scandal) gleeful disregard of reality and proportion––but seriously? It's true that a show about the real law school experience would have about as much action as Slow TV, a reality-show phenomenon that made news with a program depicting a seven-hour train trip from a driver's-seat camera, but How to Get Away with Murder goes too far, too fast in the other direction.


Just as I expected, Fox Television's remake of the BBC's Broadchurch is lacking in just about everything that made its inspiration work so well. First of all, I don't see the point in even making a show whose every scene and line of dialog is virtually identical to another show. But if the remake is more of a copy made on a low-on-toner printer, it's a complete puzzle.

I can't say it any better than this, from Willa Paskin's review in Slate:

Despite imitating the British original in almost every particular, something has been lost in the U.K.-to-U.S. translation. Through seven episodes there is nothing wildly different about the two shows, but Gracepoint has a facsimile's faded quality. Something about it is less sharp, less bright, less keen, and you are left with a washed-out flier you have seen before.
There has been a slight sanding down of nearly every aspect of the original in this American version. Carver and Ellie's personalities, for example, have both been softened. In Broadchurch, Ellie was played by Olivia Colman in a much feistier, funnier, and warmer register than Anna Gunn's interpretation of the character. Gunn's Ellie is upset to have lost a job to Carver, but not that upset. Perhaps that's because Carver (called D.I. Hardy in Broadchurch) is less persnickety: He's still blunt, but he's not quite as socially maladroit. And without the same tension between the two, Gracepoint also lacks some necessary humor––as well as their dueling perspectives on humanity.
When reviewing Broadchurch, I said that I found the show, despite its focus on a child's murder, "spiritually salubrious." I was impressed with the way the secrets uncovered by the detectives, unsettling as some could be, were knotty and specific. The residents of its cozy small town might not be what they seemed, but they weren't all malevolent or vicious––often, they, too, were coping with grief. But somehow this sense of balance––that it is not just evil that lurks in your neighbor's heart, but sadness, resilience, and love, too––is missing from Gracepoint, which really does feel like yet another series about the awfulness lurking beneath the surface of seemingly placid towns.

That's enough about TV crime dramas for now. I'll come back another time to talk about some of the others I've been watching––in between football games.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Maigret––An Iconic Detective

I have been reading mysteries since I was eight or so years old. Like many others, I started with Nancy Drew. As I think back, it wasn't long before I had run through those and started on Mike Shayne and Perry Mason. Even then, I began to see blurbs about comparisons between my chosen fictional detectives and the greatest of all detectives, apparently, the one and only Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Flying Squad, created by Georges Simenon. Over time, I have made a literary acquaintance with many iconic Depression-era detectives like Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op––but Maigret was on that list we all have, the "I'll get to it sometime" list.

Just recently, I came across a set of new publications from Penguin Press. Each month, beginning in Fall 2013, Penguin is re-releasing one of the 75 Maigret books, as chronicled by Simenon, and the time was right to dive into these books.

Maigret was introduced in 1931 in Pietr-le-Letton. It's always good to be able to read the genesis of a character, and I began with it. I read it with the most recent English title, Pietr the Latvian, also known in the past as The Case of Peter the Lett. The case begins as Maigret prowls around his frigid office in the center of Paris, stoking a coal fire, smoking a desperate pipe and waiting for more news about the journey of a devious con-man making his way to Paris by way of the train Étoile du Nord. As was the custom of those days, all Maigret had was a word picture description sent by telegram in secret police code to help him identify Pietr from Latvia. This he memorized, especially the ear anatomy because it was one thing that was hard to alter or disguise. Maigret was certain that if he saw the correct ear, he would have his man.

"Ear unmarked rim, lobe large, max cross and dimension small max, protuberant antitragus, vex edge lower fold, edge shape straight line." Even knowing a bit of ear anatomy didn't help me decipher this code.

Maigret is described as a giant of a man, but Simenon puts it more poetically: "He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues. It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stood exactly where he was."

I liked Maigret and Simenon from the start. The style of writing is concise and straightforward, and it was easy to pass over the antiquated features of policing in the thirties. Even though Maigret was a member of a flying squad, he mostly had recourse only to public transportation or a bike! He often used messengers instead of a telephone, although these were available. Far from being a romantic or dashing fellow, Maigret was deliberate and thoughtful. He thought about his wife at times, but in these early books she was a minor character at best.

When Maigret meets the train on arrival in Paris, he is first confronted with a dapper gentleman detraining who fits the description to a lobe, but he is immediately called to see the corpse of a very similar gentleman, recently killed and whose otic whorls and folds were eerily similar. But Maigret is sure of his target, and the game of cat and mouse begins.

Maigret stories differ from others in the genre because the details of solving a crime are less important than the detective's journey of discovering what he can about the characters that flesh out the plot. Simenon felt that Maigret's driving force was a search for the "naked man"––man without his cultural protective coloration.

In Pietr the Latvian, the scoundrel uses plenty of protective coloration, but Maigret is an implacable force. As he gets nearer to his prey, the desperate man turns the tables on him and he is shot while crossing the street. A through-and-through bullet means little to Maigret, but when someone close to him is murdered by sophisticated means, he steels himself to go on. There is plenty of drama with a dollop of melodrama: "It was fearsome! Tragic! Terrifying!," which really makes for a page-turner.

Maigret uses his intuition to try to understand characters' motives and what drove them to their destructive behaviors. He views most people with compassion, tempered by a reality-based cynicism.

This is more obvious in the second book of the series, The Crime at Lock 14 (also published as Maigret Meets a Milord). In this case, a woman is found strangled at a lock along a busy river. Who she was and how she got there is a mystery until Maigret begins to unravel threads that lead back into the past. The world of canal, barges and locks seems like it belongs in another century, but the human motivations are all too modern and pervasive. Maigret begins to appreciate what drove the murderer and while he hounds him implacably to his death, he still allows the man a remnant of dignity.

Georges Simenon was born in 1903 in Belgium, but his life took him to France and the USA after World War II and, finally, to Switzerland. He wrote more than 200 books under as many as 16 different pen names. What made him stand out was his spare, direct prose that occasionally was poetic. He could evoke psychological tension beautifully while, at the same time, keep a calm tenor as a counterpoint.

One constant theme is the isolated existence of the abnormal individual whose neurosis instigates criminal troubles. When Maigret begins to understand for whom he is looking, the cases are soon solved.

It seems that there have been new editions of Maigret mysteries a couple of times a decade, so it may not be an exaggeration when Simenon is referred to as one of the greatest novelists of his time. He has been compared to Chekhov and Hemingway, because he portrayed the bleakness of human life in a way that today we would characterize by the phrase "It is what it is."

The Dancer at Gai-Moulin came out in September 2014. October's release is The Bar on the Seine. The Shadow in the Courtyard and The Saint-Fiacre Affair will follow in November and December. I can't wait to spend some snowy days with Maigret.