Weekend Movie Pics

The Outfit

Any film with Mark Rylance in the lead will be a hit with me. This film, directed by Graham Moore, who wrote with script with Johnathan McClain, doesn’t disappoint (trailer).

Leonard (Rylance) insists on being called a cutter—the man who cuts the fabric for bespoke men’s suits—not a tailor, and trained on London’s Savile Row. But it’s the early 1950s and now he’s in Chicago, where most of his clients are involved in organized crime. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his assistant, and most of the time the two of them are alone in his shop.

A succession of shady characters use a dropbox in Leonard’s workroom to stash payments and other messages, but he stays out of their business. As he says Mable, “If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we’d have no customers at all.” When she starts dating the not-too-bright son of a mob boss in the midst of a deadly gang war, trouble invades the cutter’s quiet workroom, and Mable and Leonard may not escape. Clever and entertaining.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 92%.

The Rose Maker

This French comedy-drama, directed by Pierre Pinaud and written by him with Fadette Drouard and Philippe Le Guay, originated in 2020, but is now appearing in US theaters, with subtitles (trailer).

Eve (Catherine Frot) inherited a rose-growing business from her father and breeds beautiful new varieties. Despite her success, bankruptcy is imminent. She and her assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) need help, and where does Vera find people they can afford? Three people on work-release program from a local prison. They have no horticultural experience, but at least they come cheap. It’s a classic “against all odds” plot, but satisfying.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 92%.

Mothering Sunday

A super cast (Colin Firth, Olivia Coleman, Josh O’Connor) in a slight film (trailer) set in 1924, about three upper-class British families, two of whom lost sons in World War I. Firth’s character has retreated into bland platitudes, while Coleman, as his wife, is seething with unquenchable rage. The only son left to any of them (O’Connor) has a brief liaison with a maid (Odessa Young), and much of the story is from her perspective then and later, after she becomes a successful writer. It’s dripping with sadness, but the constant use of jump cuts in time and scene seem designed to mask the thinness of the story as translated to film. Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch, based on a novel by Graham Swift.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences: 60%.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

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Nine Lives

Author Peter Swanson has created another lively homage to classic mystery puzzles in his new novel, Nine Lives. Much like his earlier book, Rules for Perfect Murders, several of the characters in this new story recognize parallels to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians) and The ABC Murders—but Swanson gives these plot devices his own diabolical modern twists.

Nine strangers receive a letter containing a single sheet of paper with nine names on it in alphabetical order. The names aren’t familiar, the envelope lacks any identification. The recipients react in predictable, but different ways. A couple of them ignore the letter completely, several rack their brains trying to figure out what it means. Ultimately, most chalk it up to some species of computer mistake. Only one views it with much suspicion. She’s a female FBI agent, and it’s her job to be suspicious.

A day or two later, when a man whose name is on the list is found dead, the keen ears of the agent’s FBI supervisor perk up. The deceased, Frank Hopkins, was a man in his seventies and owned the Windward Resort in Kennewick, Maine. If he drank a little too much and got a little hazy at times, what killed him was having his head pushed into a tide pool where he drowned, a mysterious letter crumpled in his hand.

When a second person whose name is on the list is found shot to death, the possibility of a coincidence is too remote to contemplate. The FBI agent calls it “the second plane.” When the first airplane hit the World Trade Towers on 9/11, the shocked witnesses all assumed it was a tragic accident; when the second plane hit, everyone’s assessment changed, immediately and completely.

The FBI begins a massive effort to track down the seven remaining people, all but two of whom they do eventually identify and question. The recipients are clueless and the police offer protection. This makes no difference at all, as the next victim dies in his bed with a police officer sitting in the driveway. Now you’re firmly in And Then There Were None territory.

The people on the list are all interesting in their own ways, mostly under 40, but wildly diverse in where they live and what they do (aspiring actor, singer-songwriter, college professor, kept woman—does anyone still know what that means?—retiree, oncology nurse). Surprisingly, they’re mostly not deeply frightened, even as the body count rises.

Meanwhile, you can’t help but troll the text for clues of buried commonalities among the letter recipients. Several are estranged from their parents, three are in the arts, loosely speaking, two have cats (nine lives?). That kind of thing. You’ll likely enjoy trying to work out the puzzle Swanson lays before you. I did. Of course, one little fact has been withheld that would clinch your theory, but Swanson does provide enough information to get there without it. This book strikes me as an ideal vacation read, as it moves swiftly through the mayhem, while retaining a light touch.

The Goodbye Coast

In Joe Ide’s newest crime thriller, The Goodbye Coast, he abandons his popular crime-solver Isaiah Quintabe, in favor of a twenty-first century private investigator Philip Marlowe (yes!) who’s working on two compelling missing persons cases at once. 

In his acknowledgements, Ide quotes Chandler himself, who once claimed there are no classics of crime and detection fiction, but Ide maintains that Chandler came closer than anyone. He was Ide’s original writing inspiration, and that of many other writers, and attracted millions of fans. Movies made from his books helped define film noir, with Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe an indelible representation of the cynical, world-weary p.i. of hardboiled crime fiction.

Undertaking to write what’s billed as a modern version of such an icon is more than a bit cheeky. How well did Ide do? He succeeds to some extent—he has the cynicism and wisecracking down and the occasional skewering of the Establishment. He leaves most of the hard drinking to a character invented for this story, Philip’s father, Emmet Marlowe, a Los Angeles homicide detective on leave to dry out after the death of his wife, Philip’s mother. The modern Marlowe shares his namesake’s tendency for insubordination, which cost him his place in the police academy and led him to a mentorship with low-rent private detective, Basilio Ignacia.

Marlowe’s new client is fading movie star Kendra James, whose husband Terry was shot dead on the beach in front of their Malibu home a few weeks earlier. Terry was a failed movie producer desperately trying for one last big score. His seventeen-year-old daughter Cody has gone missing, and Kendra wants Marlowe to find her.

Before long Basilio drops another case in Marlowe’s lap—unwanted, but there it is. A woman has flown in from London to search for her son Jeremy, kidnapped by her ex-husband.

The theme of parents and children—and how these relationships can go terribly wrong, warping a person’s actions and reactions—permeates the book. In the case of Ren and her kidnapped son, the ex-husband is the problem, and she’s become monomaniacal about getting Jeremy back; in the case of Kendra and Cody, neither has a compassionate or generous bone in their bodies. No way could a healthy relationship evolve. Marlowe gets along with his dad, mostly, because he’s repressed his anger about his father’s neglect of his mother as she was dying. Emmet’s drinking shows he feels that shortcoming too, of course.

While you can chuckle at the relentless snark of Cody, only because it’s not directed at you, and enjoy the more civilized jibes of Ren (who’s English, after all), neither one of these females listens to Marlowe or takes his advice. Stay in your car until I get there? Not a chance. Don’t go there by yourself? Already out the door. Needless to say, their incautious behavior causes worlds of trouble.

Marlowe uses his connections in the film industry, mostly in the form of past clients who are still speaking to him, to try to get a lead on Jeremy. Once he’s found Cody, he’s suspicious of her stepmother’s intentions and stashes her at his dad’s house until he can sort things out. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated and deadly than he anticipates, involving the Russian mob, Armenian hitmen, a Bosnian assassin, and Cody’s brother, a gay minor league baseball player.

As a big fan of Ide’s I.Q. books, I think he misses the mark here. There are just too many violent confrontations and climaxes. It’s like a movie with endless car chases and shootouts. Non-stop action is tiring. At the end, I felt like somebody just beat me up.

In a rare period of quiet near the story’s end, Marlowe takes some time to review his notes and comes up with a theory about who killed Terry that he thinks holds water. His conclusions come very close to violating a basic principle of mystery-writing: Don’t introduce new clues at the end of the story. At least two pieces of his explanation relied on information I did not have. Possibly I missed these elements in the reading, but I don’t think so.

Finally, one of the pleasures of reading Chandler is his unforgettable deployment of metaphor. (My favorite: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) Ide is quite skilled with the language, and writes in an effective, forceful way, but, as this is a homage, I expected a few high-flown metaphors. Maybe they wouldn’t feel right in 2022, but I missed them.

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Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

Who Are You, Really?

Being bitten by the genealogy bug gives you a ticket to the vast carnival midway of life, with all its delights, haunted houses, and proofs of strength. You can wander into any number of enticing alleyways, all in the name of “research.” Recently, I participated in a Zoom lecture by author Paul Joseph Fronczak who’s written books about his strange history, which was made into the CNN documentary, The Lost Sons.

Ten-year-old Paul Fronczak found some newspaper clippings from the mid-1960s hidden in the family attic. They described how a woman disguised as a nurse had kidnapped a day-old baby boy from the maternity ward of a Midwestern hospital.

Fifteen months later, a toddler boy was found abandoned in northern New Jersey, identified as the missing child, and returned to his parents. The stories he’d found were about him, Paul Fronczak. Although raised in a loving home, Paul always felt like an outsider. In later years, he convinced his parents to get a DNA test, to make sure he was really their missing child. Short answer: he was not. But who was he?

He embarked on a quest to find his biological parents and, if possible, the kidnapped Paul. Again, DNA provided answers as well as new questions. The author Paul’s birth name was Jack Rosenthal, and he was born in New Jersey. (Ironically, he’s grateful to have grown up in the Fronczak home, because the Rosenthal family “was a nightmare.”) Jack Rosenthal’s birth certificate revealed a new mystery. He had a twin sister, as yet unidentified. After six years of effort, Paul did find the Fronczak’s biological son, called Kevin, living in Michigan.

If the Fronczak case weren’t convoluted enough, The Washington Post (paywall) recently covered the story of the Bryntwick family of Montreal. Anne Bryntwick was a single mom in the 1950s, who for a decade had an occasional liaison with a man named Mike Mitchell. Apparently she saw him frequently enough, because, as her son Bob says, she gave birth like clockwork “every year, year and a half.”

Anne raised five children herself, but six of her babies disappeared. As DNA-testing became more popular, information on what happened to these babies began to appear when two of the adopted-out siblings found each other. And they found their brother Bob. All but one of the adopted-out siblings were raised as only children, and, even though they are now in their 70s, they enthusiastically embrace their new-found brothers and sisters.

It seems Mitchell, their father, was selling some of Anne’s babies for $10,000 apiece to U.S. and Canadian couples desperate for adoption. Laws at the time didn’t ban such sales, and poor, uneducated women like Anne were ripe for exploitation. Meanwhile, Mitchell was married to another woman, with whom he had eight more children.

“DNA doesn’t like, people lie,” says one of the adopted-out sisters. And lying was easier when people didn’t discuss certain things. Some families still don’t. The other Rosenthal children are not interested in meeting their brother Paul, nor are most of the Bryntwick half-siblings, children of the married couple. Both of these sagas are eye-popping reads!

True Identity by Paul Fronczak

Find Her First

Former newspaper journalist Emma Christie’s second novel, Find Her First, could be called a crime thriller, which it is, or a murder mystery, which it also is. Trying to figure out what is really going on in a sea of red herrings is a big part of this book’s enormous pleasures.

The story takes place in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside, where Andy Campbell and his wife Stef are dedicated hikers. Scotland’s well-described forests and cliffs and vistas are an essential backdrop to their story.

The book opens with Andy, apparently on trial for murder, awaiting the verdict. He’s an experienced paramedic, but has he taken a life? Though the contours of his crime are not yet defined, his sadness that events reached this point is clear.

You’re left waiting for the court’s judgment, which won’t come for many pages. Instead, the narrative goes back six months to the previous summer. Chapters taking Andy’s point of view alternate with those written by Betty Stevenson, the housecleaner for Andy and his wife Stef, also a paramedic, but on mandatory leave.

Fate and whether it’s possible to escape it or to take it into your own hands is a major theme of the book. Betty is fond of Stef and desperately eager for closeness with someone. She believes in luck—the luck of a shiny penny found on the street—and in fate. Being a friend to Stef, she thinks, is her fate. And now, it seems, Stef is missing. Betty is going to Do Something About It.

Betty and Andy both had traumatic childhoods that shaped their current lives, with Andy determined to save people and Betty, in her own way, trying to recapture the innocence of those much younger days. A few chapters are in Stef’s point of view from a year before the trial. All these time shifts can be a mite confusing, but in the end make sense.

All three of the main characters have regrets. Fractured family relationships. A romantic indiscretion. Lies they’ve told. A series of miscarriages. Author Christie spins out a complicated, entangling web and keeps you guessing about where its strands will lead. Are their current challenges related to the past, the present, or the future?

She writes with a close-in psychological perspective, and you come to have a rather deep understanding of the principal characters. You know why they act as they do, even when another course might be objectively better. In a sense, it’s an object lesson in the perils of partial information. You have only partial information too, and not until the end do you learn what the story is really about. An excellent read.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.

A Valentine to Agatha Christie

The Guardian has a new monthly guide to the works of selected authors and their first pick recently was the creator of the intrepid Miss Marple and Belgian dandy Hercule Poirot, the original queen of cozy crime, Agatha Christie. Modern-day crime novelist Janice Hallett wrote the commentary, which amounted to a love-letter to the Dame of Detection.

Early on, Hallett reveals her pick for the “best” Christie: And Then There Were None. You may  I remember it by the title Ten Little Indians, which was used in the 70s paperback edition and as the title of two films. Says Wikipedia, it’s the world’s best-selling mystery, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie said it was the most difficult book she ever wrote.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, the Wikipedia article includes a chart showing how each of the characters died and how the manner of their demise matches up with the nursery rhyme. You get a little peek into Christie’s head as she made those associations.

The isolated setting, the group of friends, a shocking death. That staple of crime fiction today was debuted in Christie’s lesser-known Sparkling Cyanide, and it’s the best story to refer to at a dinner party, says Hallett. (Remember to strike her from your invite list.) Echoes of both of these books are apparent in many modern tales—One by One by Ruth Ware and two books by Lucy Foley—The Hunting Party and The Guest List.

Hallett dubs 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express and its many cinematic and theatrical adaptations as Christie’s “classic.” The photo above shows the (movable) set created for a brilliant production of the theatrical version of the story at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. Real-life events—the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping and a stranded train in Turkey—were Christie’s inspirations.

The one Hallett calls “the shocker” is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose sudden, violent death is investigated by his neighbor, Hercule Poirot. It was voted best crime novel ever[!] by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013. The title, alas, always reminds me of a famous 1945 essay by American critic Edmund Wilson, no fan of detective fiction. His article, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, expressed an opinion generations of mystery fans have gleefully ignored.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Successful Reading Experiments: 2021 Edition

I read a lot.  Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.

Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.

Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.

The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.

If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.

About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.

Did you find a favorite new author last year?

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

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