What to Watch This Weekend

popcorn

Three recent-ish British films well worth the time. Our theaters keep teasing us with lots of enticing film previews, but they aren’t here yet!

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Has this popular franchise finally lost its luster? I was afraid so, but writer Julian Fellowes pulled it off once again (trailer). All the regulars are there, except for Mary’s husband. In the opening scene, Tom Branson marries a wealthy young woman, and she and her mother join the ensemble. Downton is being taken over by the cast and crew of a deep-pockets film company, under Mary’s supervision. To avoid this intrusion, most of the family travels to the South of France to visit the Dowager Countess’s unexpected legacy—a villa willed to her by a man she charmed decades previously, before her marriage to Lord Grantham. (Here’s hoping her legacy included funds for maintenance.) Quibbles aside, the costumes, manners, scenery, and pleasantness of it all are refreshing. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 97%.

The Duke

You’ll enjoy this comedy about a man whose single-mindedness repeatedly gets him into trouble with the authorities, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (based on a true story)(trailer). To the exasperation of his wife (Helen Mirren), Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so focused on aiding elderly veterans that he neglects his family responsibilities. He steals a famous painting, hoping to hold it for ransom that would be used to help poor people. He’s caught and put on trial. Lots of chuckles here, and you can’t go wrong with Mirren and Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 86%.

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat, which was directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, is based on a nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre (trailer) It recounts the story of the key piece of the Allies’ massive effort to convince the Germans that Greece, not Sicily, was their invasion target in the Mediterranean. A corpse is given a back story and a set of fake papers and set adrift to come ashore in Spain. Will the papers get to  the German operatives in Madrid? Will they believe the fake story or recognize it as disinformation? This deception is led by military planners Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley ( Matthew Macfadyen). The film tries hard to maintain the tension, but knowing how the plot turns out, deflates that balloon somewhat. One fun aspect was the important role of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn)—then a Lieutenant Commander as assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division. in the office typing away on what he says is “a spy novel.” I’m not convinced the romantic elements are factual, but that’s filmmakers for you. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 64%.

No Escape

And, to show that you can’t get away from Downton Abbey, the cast of Operation Mincemeat includes Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley Merton in Downton. Matthew Good, who played Henry Talbot (Mary’s absent husband) in Downton plays Kempton Bunton’s barrister in The Duke..

How True is True Crime?

In the current issue of Wired, cultural commentator Virginia Heffernan writes about her long relationship with the true-crime tale The Staircase and its seemingly endless, Escher-like iterations.

It first came to her attention in 2005 in the form of a six-hour documentary, recorded on a set of DVDs. True-crime was less of a thing on television then, yet she found the The Staircase “among the most captivating films I’ve ever seen.” It won numerous awards, including a Peabody. And, it was produced by a French filmmaker with the prescient name, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Not quite Holmes, but a worthy investigator nonetheless.

The Staircase recounts a 2001 case from Durham, North Carolina, in which war-novelist Michael Peterson was tried and convicted for the grisly murder of his wife Kathleen. He claimed she died falling down a staircase, but the authorities didn’t buy it. They were convinced he had bludgeoned her to death and charged him with murder. An argument over Peterson’s bisexuality triggered the assault, they said.

The jury convicted him, and he received a life sentence, but in 2011, the verdict was overturned. (A prosecution witness had lied.) In 2017, awaiting a new trial, Peterson entered an Alford plea in which he accepted a charge of voluntary manslaughter, was sentenced to time served, and walked away a free man.

Since that time, there seems the repackaging possibilities have proliferated. In 2012, de Lestrade updated his original documentary with coverage of Peterson’s second trial (Rotten Tomatoes has no critics’ rating, though one wrote “Appalls in its presentation of the sheer incompetence of one ‘expert,’” while audiences rated it 75%). In 2018, it came to ABC as a 10-episode documentary, with more new material (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 94%; audiences 82%), and in May 2022, HBO Max aired a fictionalized miniseries, The Staircase, by Antonio Campos, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette (Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 92%; audiences 77%).

And this probably isn’t a complete list. At this point, where does reality lie? As Hefffernen says, “documentaries are filled with staged stuff, and fiction films use real names, real plot points, and often real dialog drawn from court records.” Poor Kathleen Peterson seems a bit lost.

De Lestrade criticizes the recent film for suggesting his team was biased in favor of Peterson, when through its several iterations, his Staircase attempted to leave its viewers uncertain as to the husband’s guilt. However, “taking sides” may be an artifact of de Lestrade’s decision to tell the story from the point of view of Peterson and his legal team.

As true-crime television and documentaries proliferate, and podcasts gain in listenership, it may become harder to separate fact from fiction. Without taking sides on this key problem, Heffernen concedes these hybrid genres have “lived in the flicker of truth and poetry.”

A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link

Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)

****The Bulldog and the Helix

Double helix

By Shayne Morrow – This fascinating true crime story by a former newspaper reporter is set in Port Alberni, a small town on Vancouver Island, the 12,000 square mile island across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two tragedies from this tiny town tested the limits of DNA technology and forensic practice.

In 1977, Carolyn Lee, age twelve, was abducted as she walked to her parents’ restaurant after dance class. Her body was found the next day in a remote area, face down in the mud. While the police had a strong suspicion about who her murderer was, they had no evidence. In 1996, eleven-year-old Jessica States disappeared from a park near her Port Alberni home, and a massive search finally located her battered body, hidden in a nearby ravine under bark torn from a tree. In this case, there initially was no suspect.

While these tragedies were traumatic for the community, what propels them into salience for the wider world is how they demonstrate advances in forensic analysis. In the almost 20 years between these murders, DNA technology arrived. Morrow effectively details how not just the science improved dramatically during that period, but law enforcement procedures evolved, and legal requirements related to collecting DNA evidence changed. He describes a justice system constructed of moving parts. One mistake by the police and an entire case could be dismissed.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a practice of moving officers around, much like itinerant preachers, so the officers who first worked on the Lee case had long been reassigned. Yet it wasn’t forgotten, and the RCMP hoped the new DNA analysis would finally solve it. Miraculously, some of the evidence had been saved from that two decade old crime and from which DNA could be extracted. The tenacity and careful work of the officers dedicated to solving this cold case—the investigative Bulldog of the title—that finally led to a conviction in 1998. Fortunately for the States family, justice was not so long delayed, and her killer was convicted in 2001.

These two cases were landmarks in Canadian jurisprudence regarding the treatment of forensic DNA evidence, and author Morrow was the primary court and crime reporter for them both. His meticulous retelling of the RCMP decision-making process—which, although it could have gone off the rails at any number of points, led to a successful prosecution of two killers—is as much a page-turner as any novel.

Graphic: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license