Toronto: Backdrop for Mystery

Park Bench, snow

Trang Pham, pexels license

Two very different mystery/thrillers from authors based in Canada, where everyone is supposed to be so nice. !

*****Bellevue Square

By Michael Redhill – A compelling contemporary psychological thriller set in Toronto, Bellevue Square won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award and is now out in paperback.

Narrator Jean Mason runs a downtown bookshop. When customers begin mistaking her for Ingrid—a woman they know from Kensington Market—Jean decides to track down this supposed doppelganger.

She stakes out a bench at the market’s heart, Bellevue Square, and observes the comings and goings of the folk living and trading nearby. The richly described life of the square becomes the center of the novel and of Jean’s attention. The Bellevue Square regulars are “a peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants.” Author Redhill gives them distinctive personalities and preoccupations that are occasionally comic, yet never cruel.

As Jean gets to know them, she likes them and they her. She lets them know she will pay for information about Ingrid and they come up with sightings and information, but should she trust it? Her husband Ian, a policeman, insists on knowing where she’s spending her days, and when she takes him there, his fresh and unsentimental eyes see a collection of loonies. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time? With these kinds of people?”

You hope Jean is successful in her quest for Ingrid, even as its likelihood dwindles. Redhill says Bellevue Square “is a literary novel but has one foot in mystery and a couple of toes in psychological thriller,” and Jean’s reality cracks and splinters around you in unique and unexpected ways. Well worth a read.

P.S. Until recently, the Bellevue Square of the novel was a real location in Toronto. In the spring of 2017, reports Redhill in his acknowledgements, the city’s Parks, Forests and Recreation division razed it. He says, “My regards to the City of Toronto for enthusiastically illustrating some of the themes in my work.”

 ***The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan – Now also out in paperback, is Ausma Zehanat Khan’s second Toronto-based thriller featuring Esa Khattak,  head of the Community Policing Section, and his sergeant and chief sounding-board, Rachel Getty. As winter sets in, the Canadian authorities are trying to thwart a rumored New Year’s Day terrorist attack and Khattak’s friend, Muslim intelligence officer Mohsin Dar, has infiltrated the plotters. Then he’s murdered.

Khan vividly describes the icy, remote location where key scenes take place, as well as the cramped urban mosque where the police believe the plotters meet. Their putative ringleader is a charismatic but evasive man named Hassan Ashkouri who speaks in riddles and poetry.

Khattak is tasked with finding Dar’s killer. For personal reasons, Inspector Ciprian Coale, who heads the team trying to stop the terrorists, is determined to thwart Khattak’s investigation at every turn. He’s not above suggesting that Dar may not have been playing straight with him and hints Khattak may be equally unreliable.

Politics is thus intertwined with many aspects of this story, and every move Khattak makes is subject to political interpretation by his rivals, the news media, and the minority communities he serves. This slant on police work give his investigation an appealing timeliness. However, the author occasionally stops writing fiction in order to provide a lecture on political topics.

Khattak’s sister Ruksh has a new man in her life, one she plans to marry—coincidentally, the terrorist leader Hassan Ashkouri. In her reflexive hostility toward her older brother and her defiant determination to pursue the relationship she acts more like a sulky teenager than a grown woman. By contrast, Rachel Getty, Khattak’s sergeant, is an appealing character. Khan gives her an interesting background as a competitive hockey player with an important all-star game imminent, yet she doesn’t go to hockey practice once during the entire novel.

Although the desire to learn the fates of these characters kept me reading, Khan’s prose is murky at times; at others, she telegraphs too much, announcing, that a character just made a big mistake, for example. Show, don’t tell.

As a bottom line, this book contains unusual characters and situations that should carry you through the uneven patches in the writing.

***A Noise Downstairs

typewriter, writing

Steven Depolo, creative commons license

By Linwood Barclay – A professor at a small Connecticut college, living with his second wife on the shore of Long Island Sound, Paul Davis has had a rather unremarkable life until late one October night when he recognizes the broken taillight of his colleague Kenneth’s car and follows it.

Kenneth is driving erratically, and Paul worries the older man might be tipsy. When Kenneth stops his car on a lonely road and pops the trunk, Paul stops too and is shocked to see the bodies of two women inside. Wielding a shovel, Kenneth bangs him on the head and would have murdered him, except for the timely appearance of the police, investigating that car with a broken taillight they noticed a few moments before.

Eight months later, Kenneth has pleaded guilty to the murders and is in prison, but Paul hasn’t fully recovered. The blow to the head has mostly resolved, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks. His wife Charlotte and his psychologist Anna encourage him, but he has headaches, he forgets things, he’s haunted by the murders. Paul knew the dead women slightly and it seems Kenneth was carrying on with both at once. Only his wife was unaware of his reputation for womanizing.

Much of the story takes place within the four walls of Paul’s house, making it another one of those claustrophobic, unreliable narrator domestic thrillers which there are a lot of lately. Unfortunately, for me at least, that took the freshness out of Barclay’s story, though he has a nice red herring woven in.

Paul is determined to regain a grip on his life and decides the best way to try to answer his many lingering questions about the murders would be to review everything about the case and the reasons people commit murder. Charlotte and Anna are initially dubious, but persuaded by his determination.

Charlotte even buys him an old-fashioned Underwood typewriter. It’s a talisman of the case, because in one of its more ghoulish aspects, Kenneth made his victims type a note on such a typewriter, apologizing for their “immoral, licentious, whore-like behavior.” When Paul repeatedly hears the typewriter in the middle of the night, he slips downstairs to see who is using it, but the house is empty. He half-believes the dead women are trying to communicate with him.

On a visit to Anna, he loses his keys and Charlotte has to pick him up. Now here, the author lost me, because if he drove to the office and after their session he doesn’t have his keys, why wasn’t a thorough search made before calling for a ride? Then when Paul believes there’s been an intruder at his home, why does it take many pages for the characters to recall the missing keys? Ultimately, they are “found” in one of the two chairs in Anna’s office, but that unlikely discovery is taken at face value, and no one wonders whether they were there all along.

Odd events continue, and to put the ghostly typewriter issue to rest, his friend Bill suggests that he put a piece of paper in it and see what the women want to say. It’s an absurd idea, except that messages begin to appear. Even if you are skeptical of the paranormal, it’s not easy to see how these tricks are being accomplished, and Paul, not fully of sound mind, is increasingly anxious.

Author Barclay keeps the tension and the possibilities going at a brisk clip, and though you may figure out the direction of the plot early on, he has surprises in store.

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Listen Up! Take 2

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Three notable audiobooks for your consideration: the fantastic debut novel She Rides Shotgun, award-nominee The Breakdown, and Hangman, follow-up to last year’s mega-hit, Ragdoll. Starting with the best of the three.

*****She Rides Shotgun
By Jordan Harper, narrated by David Marantz – Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best debut novel, this is the audio equivalent of a real page-turner (though I’m never tempted to listen at 2x speed!). When Nate McClusky leaves prison after refusing to work for the dangerous gang Aryan Steel, a death warrant is issued for him and his family. He finds out how determined the killers are when he discovers his ex-wife and her new husband murdered, and realizes his eleven-year-old daughter Polly will be next. He picks her up at school before the killers find her, and the chase is on. They’re practically strangers to each other, as he’s been incarcerated for most of her childhood. She’s a quirky kid, shy and smart as a whip, teddy bear in tow.

Nate hasn’t had much parenting experience, but he warms to the role, and two have terrifying—and sometimes heartwarming—adventures roaming Southern California, as they gradually become partners in evading their would-be killers as well as the police. Betrayal is a constant anxiety. Based on the premise—the criminal dad, the kid—I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as I did, no small part of which relates to Marantz’s excellent narration.

Another recent and remarkable book about a criminal father raising a daughter was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, also an award nominee.

***The Breakdown
By B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire – Another domestic thriller of the “is she going crazy, or is someone doing this to her?” variety. Unfortunately, the big reveal seemed obvious early on, which tarnished the entertainment value. I selected it because the book was on the “Best Novel” short-list for a 2018 Thriller Award. Compared to the other two nominees I read, it falls short of the nail-biting excitement of Gin Phillips’s Fierce Kingdom or the fascination of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will.

Rain on Windshield

Iwan Gabovitch, creative commons license

The story takes place in and around a mid-sized English market town. One night, as Cass is driving through the woods to her isolated (natch) home in a terrible rainstorm, she sees a woman in her car, stopped by the side of the road. Since the woman doesn’t appear to be in distress, rather than get drenched, she doesn’t offer aid. The next morning, she learns the woman has been murdered. And that she knows her.

Guilt over not helping, strange occurrences that make her think the killer may now be stalking her, and fear that, like her mother, she may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s make for a pretty mopey outlook. The narration reflects that, though I admire Maguire’s portrayal of the long-suffering husband. You can hear—and empathize with—his growing doubts about his wife’s mental state. If you like the “gaslight” sub-genre, you may enjoy this.

**Hangman
By Daniel Cole, narrated by Alex Wyndham – This book follows on the successful 2017 thriller Ragdoll, and involves some of the same characters, charged with solving a series of baffling murders that hits London and New York. Are they Ragdoll-related or grisly copycats? DCI Emily Baxter, who was key to solving the Ragdoll case, is flown to New York to liaise [!]. I like how prickly she is—don’t try to sweet-talk her for god’s sake! The CIA operative is an engaging character too.

I’m not squeamish, but my lack of enthusiasm for Hangman derives from its excess of sadistic violence, which appeared ramped up for shock value. A male narrator was chosen for the audiobook, though usually the narrator’s gender matches that of the protagonist. Possibly the publishers thought the extreme violence would be better portrayed in a male voice, and Wyndham does a fine job presenting UK and US characters of varying ethnicities.

Read an earlier Listen Up! compilation here.

Darkest Hour

Perhaps you feel about Churchilled out, what with Netflix’s The Crown and his memorable words floating over the disheartened British soldiers in Dunkirk, but director Joe Wright’s new film (trailer) is absolutely mesmerizing. I wish the film had gone on to present the whole rest of the war as vividly and thoughtfully, not just those desperate early days of the title.

Gary Oldman as Winston looks more the role than did John Lithgow, but the power of his performance comes from truly inhabiting the part and having a script by Anthony McCarten that shuns the clichés. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant as Churchill’s ever-supportive wife Clementine (resembling not a little Harriet Walter in The Crown). Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Rose, brunette this time) is sweet as his long-suffering secretary Elizabeth.

What this film provides that so many gloss over is scrupulous candor about the political facts facing Churchill. He was a compromise candidate for the role of Prime Minister, and people in his own party mistrusted him. They didn’t want him. The king didn’t want him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and a strong faction, led by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocated a peace deal with Hitler, which Churchill adamantly opposed.

While today’s viewers may side with Churchill on the question of whether a good treaty could have been achieved with the dictator, Wright never over-eggs the pudding by weakening Halifax’s arguments. Both sides of this consequential debate are principled and passionate.

Churchill was new and shaky in his position, the entire British army was stranded at Dunkirk, the European countries were overrun, France was about to fall, and America could not help (yet). It was truly Britain’s Darkest Hour.  How the PM deals with it all reflected his genius. “If it’s a history lesson,” says reviewer Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller.”

And Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography offers many nice touches, too. The slow-motion views of people in the street (which you realize is Churchill’s view as he passes in his car), the isolation of the elevators, the pockmarked French countryside from the air. Wonderful.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84% ; audiences: 83%.

Cliff-Hangers: Making Them Work

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

photo: Insomnia Cured Here, creative commons license

Mystery and thriller writers are often advised to end chapters with a cliff-hanger to propel the reader forward through the narrative, to create those page-turners, to make them read “just one more chapter.” Writing cliff-hangers sounds like one of the easier bits of lore to follow, but it can be deceptively difficult to write good ones.

Simple Guidelines

  • Don’t repeat the same formula too often, like asking a question—Would the police arrive in time?  (I’d advise almost never using a question, but that’s me.)
  • Remember that something that sounds compelling to you, embroiled as you are in the fates of your characters, can come across as ho-hum obvious to the reader. In a new thriller about the search for a serial killer, one chapter ends with the head police investigator saying, “We have to find him.” Well, duh.
  • Include a hint of what’s to come. This can be done well or, in this case, badly: “As she stood alone on the once tranquil country lane, she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered.” That’s the author strolling into the scene and explaining. Reader responds, “I hope so. This is a thriller!”
  • A good general rule to write on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen is this, then: never be cheesy. If you find you’ve written a cliffhanger that’s no more than a transparent attempt to ramp up the tension, better to delete it. I’ve jettisoned plenty of them.

Origins

Although the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have you think differently, Dickens did not invent the term cliff-hanger (though he certainly used the technique). That honor goes to Thomas Hardy, whose serialized novel A Pair of Blue Eyes left protagonist Henry Knight hanging off a cliff, from whence he reviewed the history of the world.

Because Charles Dickens also serialized his novels, with people in England mobbing the newsstands and Americans clamoring for arriving ships to unload the publications containing the next chapters, I figure he knew a thing or two about writing an effective cliff-hanger, one that would kindle enough interest in readers to last a week or even longer. If you have any Dickens lying around, check him out or wait until my next post (There, a cliff-hanger with a hint of what’s to come).

Monday: Examples of effective cliff-hangers, past and present.

Short Mystery Fiction – Ellery Queen Picks

baby sea turtles

photo: Chris Evans, creative commons license

Short stories are a great diversion when you don’t have the time or attention span for a novel. The pacing is different. Every word should count. A paperback or magazine of short stories travels well too. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now in its 76th year, is one of the best.

The EQMM editors select a wide variety of stories from the broad categories of mystery, crime, and suspense and now publish six times a year. Here are a few from recent issues that I found particularly entertaining.

  • “Frank’s Beach” by Scott Loring Sanders – a bit of sea turtle ecology and a dead body. Sanders’s stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and he has a new collection out last month, Shooting Creek. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Flowing Waters” by Brendan DuBois – a prolific writer of short stories, this one focused on a woman with PTSD and her formerly abused rescue dog. A classic case of who rescued whom? DuBois latest novel, Storm Cell, was published late last year. (EQMM, January/February 2017)
  • “Oh, Give Me a Home” by Gerald Elias – tracking down a rogue group of survivalists in Utah’s Uintas Mountains. Elias (a former violinist) has a novel, Devil’s Trill. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “Ruthless” by Judith Cutler – a Black Widow meets her match. Cutler’s novel Head Start will be out later this year. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “The Model Citizen” by William Dylan Powell – love these humorous tales featuring former cop Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo who live on the boat David’s Fifth Margarita. (EQMM March/April 2017)

If you follow this blog at all, you may recall that my own story, “A Slaying Song Tonight” led off the EQMM holiday issue (January/February 2017), with a tale of how relationships are tested when a Christmas caroling excursion becomes the opportunity for murder.

 

The Witch (2016 rerelease)

goat

(photo: adapted from stanhua, creative commons license)

In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for this writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional horror film calls it The VVitch (new rerelease trailer), the ancient Latinate “double v.” It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Triggered by some heterodoxy of William’s that he clings to with “prideful conceit,” the expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.

William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), 12-year-old son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.

Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him.

All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites (“Canst thou tell me what thy corrupt nature is?” William asks; “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only until sin, and that continually,” responds Caleb) are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?

Some scenes suggest the latter and viewers inclined that way are persuaded the witchery is real. My own view is that these scenes were the imaginings of hearts filled with fears, stomachs empty of food, and minds prey to acute spiritual anxieties. After all, such anxieties contributed to the Salem witch trials some 60 years later. In truth, the family members see the things that most trouble them. As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker, “The Witch feels at once sticky with tangible detail and numinous with suggestion.” When the closing credits roll, unanswered questions remain.

As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.

This is not a horror film of the slasher variety or one that lays out clearcut answers. Viewers can come to their own interpretation, and mine does not rely on supernatural forces. Rather than “witches—yes or no?” it is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics like it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating—the very things I admired!

I wanted to see this film because recently my genealogical research uncovered that a direct ancestor came from England to Massachusetts—most probably with the same type of religious zeal that took William and his family so far from home—in exactly that time period, 1633. I also learned the dispiriting fact that another ancestor (specifically, Margery Pasque, a first cousin eight times removed) testified in the Salem witch trials against Rebecca Nurse, later executed. I thought The VVitch would give a bit of a sense of what lives were like then, and in that it certainly succeeded.

If YOU see it, I’d be very interested in knowing what you thought of it!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences: 53%, replaced by a “want to see” percentage of 94%.

Related articles

**Slade House

haunted house

(photo: Joey Gannon, creative commons license)

By David Mitchell – I’ve read all of David Mitchell’s books except 2015’s The Bone Clocks and enjoyed each of them, so looked forward to reading his latest. It’s the distinctive square book with the yellow die-cut cover through which Slade House’s floorplan shows. While many of these other novels wandered briefly into the supernatural or uncanny, this one is firmly planted there.

According to Dwight Garner in his New York Times review, the book grew out of a short story, published in 140-character tweets. It tells the story of five people who, nine years apart, happen into another dimension where the elaborate mansion Slade House exists and where they encounter a pair of twins, brother and sister, who are, as one would-be victim puts it, “parasitic soul-slayers.” They need to suck the souls of humans in order to preserve their immortality. The first victim we read about has many of the charms of the 13-year-old narrator of Black Swan Green, but don’t get too attached. He’s soon replaced by a vulnerable police detective, not nearly as perceptive as he thinks he is. And so on.

Mitchell is a superb writer and conjures images of Slade House and his all-too-human victims and all-too-inhuman protagonists that are hard to dispel. But, what’s the point? Possibly such stories are just not my cuppa. Certainly, this one didn’t appeal to me, even at the level of simple entertainment. There is no one in the book to relate to or learn from. The brother and sister are too weird (not “fleshed out,” I’d say) and their victims on the scene too briefly. Says Garner, “These characters aren’t alive enough for us to fear for them when they’re in peril.”

Nevertheless, readers who enjoy the paranormal may find themselves agreeing with the Washington Post reviewer who said the book is “devilishly fun” or The Daily Beast, which called it “dark, thrilling, and fun.” While the novel was an easy-to-complete read on a five-hour plane ride, the recurring, but temporary illusion of Slade House itself was perhaps the most stable touchpoint in the whole enterprise.

Maybe I should give Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a try and see whether I have the same reaction. Other suggestions?

****Wolf Winter

arctic wolf

(photo: myri-_bonnie, Creative Commons license)

By Cecilia Ekbäck, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan – Swedish-born writer Ekbäck’s debut crime thriller is set in remote north Sweden in 1717. The long darkness of winter is closing in, and the scattered homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain are preparing for what the signs suggest will be a rough time. The Lapps who have come south for the season say it will be a “wolf winter,” which they describe as “the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”

Paavo, his wife Maija (MY-ah), and their daughters, 14-year-old Frederika and six-year-old Dorotea, are new arrivals from Finland, and they haven’t spent a winter this far north before. They aren’t sure what to expect, even though they don’t know the mountain’s dark history of evil portents and mysterious disappearances. One thing they do not expect is for Paavo to decide to leave his womenfolk on their own and travel to the coast to try to earn some money. He won’t return before spring. And they definitely don’t expect that Frederika and Dorotea will discover the mutilated corpse of one of their new neighbors, a man named Eriksson, in a glade where they’d intended to pasture their goats.

When Eriksson’s death comes to light, some of the neighbors attribute the savage attack to a bear, others suggest wolf, but Maija who is an earth-woman by training—a midwife and healer—insists the death was caused by a human agent. Almost certainly, a murderer is in their midst.

Yet no one misses Eriksson, a man who made it his business to ferret out and exploit people’s weaknesses. “Sometimes God did take the right people” seems to be the view. In this tiny community in which everyone knows everyone else and, presumably, most of their secrets and hidden grudges, the layers of deception keep being peeled back.

In the region’s central town the immense power of the church resides in the person of the priest, Olaus Arosander. He starts out as Maija’s adversary, skeptical of her belief Eriksson was murdered. While he doesn’t trust her kind of knowledge, he has secrets of his own that put him at odds with his church’s views. Over time, Maija and Arosander both become committed to determining what happened to Eriksson, and whether his death is the end of violence on Blackåsen Mountain or the beginning.

The notion of wolves takes on both a corporeal and metaphoric significance in the story. It becomes clear that predators are ravaging the countryside, preying on the community’s weakest members. Darkness, too, means more than the months’ long absence of sunlight. It also refers to the special knowledge—call it intuition, call it the ability to read signs, call it something more, but don’t dare call it sorcery—that helps Maija sort truth from misdirection. In that place and time, such “special knowledge” was a potentially deadly inheritance, one that Maija received from her dead grandmother and which she fears has been passed on to Frederika, who doesn’t yet understand its power or how to control it.

Wolf Winter works well as an audio book. Bresnahan’s narration is clear, and the characters are easy to distinguish both by the reader’s voice and Ekbäck’s helpful cues regarding the speaker’s identity. This is a perfect listen for the shortest days of the year—preferably in front of a fire, in heavy socks and woolly robe, because the novel’s chills come from both the weather so ably described and the hearts of the characters. Another great contribution to the Nordic noir tradition.

A somewhat longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website here.

Labyrinth of Lies

Alexander Fehling, Labyrinth of LiesGermany’s submission (trailer) for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards puts viewers in a world of anti-Semitism, fear, denial, indifference and callous pragmatism. The movie, screened with subtitles, breathes life into the familiar storyline of a justice-seeking crusader. This one is not entirely alone, but the pervasive forces he’s battling are propagated not just by those in power but by the common folk as well.

Set in Frankfurt in 1958, the movie fictionalizes the effort to conduct the first German prosecutions of former Nazi officials. Many believed the Nuremberg trials conducted by the Allied forces had resolved that matter (or should have). At the same time, it was common knowledge that war criminals were everywhere, carrying on normal lives with impunity. Only after these ground-breaking trials did Germans finally confronted their wartime culpability.

Bringing ex-Nazis to justice required heroic effort. Making that journey in the film is young prosecutor Johann Radmann, played by Alexander Fehling in a widely praised performance. (Radmann is a composite of several real-life prosecutors.) He’s a junior one, handling traffic violations, but he’s ambitious. The screenplay deftly reveals this by showing him articulating the case for sentencing a murderer to the maximum penalty of life imprisonment, then we see he’s standing alone in front of a bathroom mirror.

Into this unfulfilled life comes a revelation from a journalist, Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski). He tells prosecutors a member of the Waffen S.S. stationed at the Auschwitz concentration camp now works as a school teacher, in violation of federal law. Radmann wants the case, but he’s opposed by his boss and colleagues. He’s supported, however, then led by a shrewd, experienced Attorney General, Fritz Bauer, the real-life hero of the story, who has long harbored the ambition of bringing top ex-Nazis to justice. Played by the late Gert Voss, he exudes quiet power.

Labyrinth of Lies

Becht and Fehling in Labyrinth of Lies

Radmann is far less aggressive in his personal life than his professional one, but a convincing romantic involvement with a dressmaker, Marlene Wondrak (Friederike Becht), raises the stakes for him.

We feel the horrors of the camp through the emotions of survivors, primarily artist Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), a friend of Gnielka, who lost his twin daughters to the horrific experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. But the focus stays on the complicity of those who continue to ignore, deny, or cover up Nazi crimes. It’s not difficult to understand the disconnect between Radmann and the people trying to thwart him. He was too young to appreciate how so many of his countrymen came to be Nazis. If he can’t come to terms with his new knowledge, however, it will destroy him.

Some critics, such as The Boston Globe’s Peter Keough, have found the movie “formulaic and uninspired,” but most have a more positive view, such as that of Kate Taylor in The Globe and Mail of Toronto. She called it “a strong account of a lesser-known episode of post-Holocaust history raised above its obvious cinematic formula by Fehling’s anchoring performance and the film’s wise approach to the survivors’ horrific testimony.”

Rotten Tomatoes ratings are 78% from critics and 83% from viewers.

Guest review by fellow writing group member David Ludlum, a fan of tales of intrigue.