The Cut

By Chris Brookmyre – “Millicent Spark’s life ended on the twenty-third of January, 1994,” starts Chris Brookmyre’s new thriller. She woke up with the body of her lover Markus next to her, covered in stab wounds. She served 20-some years in prison for his murder – her sentence lengthened because she insisted she was innocent. She’s finally out, living in Glasgow, trying to cobble together some kind of modus vivendi in a vastly changed world.

At a university across town, Jerry Kelly is an uneasy first-year student, having trouble fitting in. He’s black, from a village in North Ayrshire, and grew up with almost nothing. A big piece of his education, such as it was, came from obsessive viewing of horror videos from his gran’s rental outlet. This explains his encyclopedic knowledge of film in general and especially the legendary gore-fests.

Brookmyre’s two misfits have plenty of depth and individuality; they’re sympathetic, despite their flaws, with a wry sense of themselves. On the surface they appear to be polar opposites, but plot magic happens once their paths cross.

Jerry applies to live in an off-campus house, not expecting to be accepted, given who he is and how he looks—dreadlocks, black wardrobe of metal band t-shirts—and given that his prospective housemates are three elderly ladies. To his surprise and theirs, they take him in. He discovers that pre-prison, his prickly new housemate Millie Spark had been a genius makeup artist on many of the blood-soaked films he loves. Grisly wounds were her specialty. The movie-banter between them is highly entertaining, and she’s not put off by his dark affect. But what cements their relationship is when he rescues her from a man trying to smother her with a bed-pillow.

The last movie Millie worked on was Mancipium, a film rumored to be such pure evil no one has ever seen it. All copies were destroyed, and everyone connected with it died. Not strictly true, although several unexplained deaths and disappearances gave the story legs. Seeing Mancipium is at the top of Jerry’s all-time wish-list.

Millicent and Jerry discover that her murdered lover Markus was not a film production company rep, as he claimed, but a London cop. Why did he lie, and what was he after? Who really killed him, and why was Millie framed for his murder? The answers to these questions could prove Millie’s innocence and answer the more urgent question, who wants her dead now? Author Brookmyre effectively ramps up the tension as the danger to Millie mounts and as she and Jerry discern the outlines of a much bigger conspiracy.

The long-ago summer Mancipium was wrapping up offers intriguing clues: immense pressures on the production team, a decadent lifestyle of underage sex and over-consumed drugs, and the influx of high-powered guests that lifestyle attracted. Millie and Jerry search out the scattered remnants of the old crew and ask their questions, with their pursuers never more than a half-step behind.

There may be a fifty-year age difference between Jerry and Millie, but a lively and wholly believable friendship grows up between them. Getting out of their predicament will require the knowledge and skills of both. They are fascinating, funny, and spirited protagonists who are such good companions—to the reader and to each other—that I wished the book could continue for another hundred pages. I hated to give them up! In sum, a most satisfying adventure.

Stellar New Crime Novels from South America

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosenda

Uruguay probably isn’t at the top of your list of places clever crimes are hatched—with cleverer police detectives on the prowl—but Mercedes Rosenda’s new book, admirably translated by Tim Gutteridge, will clue you in. It’s dubbed ‘a blackly comic caper in the style of Fargo.’ You may object to the descriptor, caper, as being too weighted on the comic rather than the ‘blackly’ side. But if you think of a caper as involving slightly dim criminals who can’t quite get anything right, this is surely one.

The story begins in confusion. Diego is in an overcrowded and dangerous prison, charged with a recent kidnapping. The slippery lawyer Antinucci promises to spring him. It seems that Ursula López, wife of the kidnapped man, says Diego never contacted her, never asked for a ransom. But the ransom was paid, and Diego’s partner absconded with it. Still, without Ursula, he can’t be convicted.

Before long, you realize two very different women named Ursula López are intertwined in the story, and it’s hard to see how everything can work out well for them both. The situation looks increasingly perilous for Diego too, when he’s forced to participate in an ill-conceived armored truck robbery.

I found Ursula and the female detective, Leonilda, especially interesting. They’re women whom the men dismiss as unimportant, yet they keep the events of the story moving in unexpected directions and provide much of the wry humor. Glimpses of life in Montevideo peep through too.

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Eloísa Díaz’s riveting new political thriller takes place during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. The present-day of the story is December 2001, when riots in Buenos Aires and elsewhere will lead to the president’s resignation. These events alternate with flashbacks to 1981 and Argentina’s Dirty War, a terrifying era in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of supposed left-wing sympathizers. Among the murdered was the younger brother of the book’s protagonist, Inspector Joaquín Alzada of the Policía Federal.

Alzada has a new deputy, Orestes Estrático, eager to please, alarmingly wet behind the ears, and insufferably by-the-book. A young woman from one of the country’s wealthiest landowners is reported missing, and Alzada’s superiors don’t want him spending time on the case. After all, what kind of investigation is it? A missing person? Not enough time has elapsed. A murder? There’s no body. Unless . . . Alzada and Estrático recall the body of an unknown woman discovered that morning in a dumpster behind the city morgue. Could they pretend she and the disappeared woman are one and the same?

Alzada is an engaging character, and how he goes about discovering what happened to his family in 1981 and to the missing woman in 2001 is told from close-in point of view. You’re privy to many of his thoughts and wry observations at odds with the politically correct demeanor that’s his survival strategy. Especially enjoyable is young Estrático, who has talents Alzada doesn’t expect.

New Jersey Noir: Cape May

New Jersey Noir: Cape May is the second of William Baer’s novels about private investigator Jack Colt, set firmly in New Jersey. Jack is a resident of Paterson, noted for its waterfalls that powered local industry (pictured). There, one of his forebears founded the Colt firearms manufacturing company, so naturally, the revolver he carries is a Colt Python. Luckily, he’s pretty good with it too.

A judge from Cape May, New Jersey, at the far southern tip of the state, calls on Jack with an intriguing tale of two mysterious deaths. He’d hired a local Cape May private investigator, Edward Colt—puzzling coincidence there—to look into the murder of his daughter ten years before. Now Eddie Colt has been murdered.

Judge O’Brien had twin daughters, Nikki and Rikki. When Nikki was seventeen, her car was driven into the Atlantic Ocean with her in the trunk. The police long ago exhausted their available suspects, but Eddie Colt wanted to pursue it. In his papers were twenty-five thousand dollars and a note: “Remittance for Jack Colt.” “He wants you to solve the case,” the judge told Jack. “Both cases.”

Jack goes about doing just that, re-interviewing the dead girl’s twin, Rikki, their friends, and trying to get a lead on a college student Nikki met the night she disappeared. The story, as Jack gradually unwraps it, has unexpected twists and is nicely plotted.

Two additional aspects make the novel a true pleasure to read: humor and narrative voice. The banter between Jack and Rikki and between Jack and his elderly receptionist will keep you chuckling. For that matter, all the dialog is strong, reflecting author Baer’s playwriting expertise.

Most of the story is told by Jack himself. You feel as if you’re sitting in the passenger seat of his car, tooling down the Garden State Parkway.

As such conversations go in real life, Jack wanders a bit, taking the opportunity to throw in facts about New Jersey, which he clearly loves, Paterson especially. But Baer has such a light touch, these digressions stay interesting, not pedantic. For example, he points out that Cape May has more Victorian homes than any other city in the United States, except San Francisco.

In addition to the first novel in this series, author Baer has published several books of short stories, plays, and nonfiction works and is an award-winning poet and playwright.

You can be forgiven for assuming the book is part of the Akashic Books short story series set in various cities and, in fact, Akashic published a New Jersey Noir a few years ago. Unlike stories in that volume, many of which unfortunately seemed as if they might have occurred anywhere, Baer’s book is New Jersey all the way. Real New Jerseyans will recognize that last bit as a shout-out to one of our state’s most famous characters.

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

Autumn Thrills

Three exciting reads from 2020. The only thing they have in common is how good they are! Click on the title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Wicked Sister

In this all-new story and cast of characters, Karen Dionne reprises elements of her first quite fabulous book, The Marsh King’s Daughter. Again, the setting is the sparsely populated, heavily wooded Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and, again, the natural world plays an important role, underlining themes and supporting the action.

The main character, 26-year-old Rachel, even talks to animals. Dionne’s light touch makes these interactions more revealing of Rachel than weird. Rachel is fragile. She’s just spent 15 years in a mental institution believing she murdered her parents. With chapters narrated by both her mother (“then”) and Rachel (“now”), you learn what really happened and pray for Rachel’s escape. My full review here.

How to Be Nowhere

Fasten your seatbelt for a breakneck, bumpy ride. Tim MacGabhann’s new thriller takes place in the murky regions of Central America

Investigative reporter Andrew and his friend Maya have connected with some pretty dangerous characters over the years, and that past comes roaring back.

The bad guys want the reporters’ help finding their leader’s daughter, a much more difficult and dangerous task than you might imagine. Plenty of dark humor. If Hollywood ever makes a movie of this story, they’ll need a hefty budget line-item for expendable vehicles.

My full review here.

Seven Lies

Elizabeth Kay’s new domestic thriller is an immersive journey into a twenty-year friendship. Jane and Marnie have been inseparable since age eleven, though narrator Jane doesn’t hesitate to explain the many ways they differ.

They work in London post-college, and Marnie meets successful, wealthy, charming Charles. Jane loathes him. When Marnie asks Jane, “You think we’re right for each other, don’t you?” Jane swallows hard and tells lie number one: “Yes, I do.”

Kay strings you along, inviting your complicity, as the box Jane has constructed for herself becomes smaller and smaller and her lies increasingly consequential. My full review here.

How Was That Movie?

popcorn

Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.

Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.

What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.

Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

Romeo and Juliet: On Stage

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian Belknap, runs through November 17.

You know the story. An implacable hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).

Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo, Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet. From there, everything goes downhill.

Over the years, seeing this play and reading David Hewson’s admirable Juliet and Romeo, I’ve come to recognize that, although Romeo is an effective swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments his lack of focus. Yet he needs to be a credible lover, a person who would inspire passion and passionate acts. The weakness of this production is the lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.

Perhaps in trying to make the play approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along and avoid becoming ensnared by the rhythms of Shakespeare’s prose. If so, it didn’t work for me. At times, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t follow (from the front row). Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!