Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

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

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

A Juicy Idea

The origin stories of novels are as varied as their authors. The idea for the Harry Potter series first came to J.K. Rowling while traveling on a train delayed between Manchester and London. (No more whining about airport delays, please. Use your time wisely). Lee Child has variously attributed the creation of Jack Reacher to sheer commercial motivation and as “an antidote to the all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that peopled the genre.” The writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, authors of several crime thriller series, began by leveraging the pair’s publishing and museum experience.

In the firehose of information about authors and their books that flows across my computer screen daily, I recently noticed another intriguing origin story. A mother and son duo created a new book called The Gourmet Gangster. It combines episodes in the life of a fictional New York gangster who owns an upscale restaurant with real recipes the apocryphal restaurant serves. And the book’s roots are as quirky as the title suggests. Here’s how it came about, according to author Marcia Rosen.

“I wrote the mysteries, and my son Jory provided the recipes. Together we created some murderous titles and decided which types of food would best fit the stories.” These titles include “He’s a Dead Duck” paired with a recipe for Duck à l’Orange and a recipe for “The Quiche (Kiss) of Death.”

But the impetus for the collection goes even deeper. Marcia says in the book’s epilogue that her father was a Jewish gangster in Buffalo, New York, who owned a gambling hall and consorted with a tribe of colorful local characters. She says: “Remembering my father, and picturing him at a restaurant he owned when I was a teenager, initially inspired me to write about events set in a restaurant.

“I’m a mystery writer, so of course they had to be about murder, mayhem and, I thought, a fun bit of madness. Loving short stories, I decided to write a series of short mysteries, all involving the same criminal organization and taking place in a restaurant called Manhattan Shadow. The stories are from my vivid and sometimes frightening imagination, played out for the pleasure of mystery lovers.

“The idea of adding recipes made good sense, since my father was a chef. Level Best Books, our publisher, suggested putting a recipe before each story. ‘Great idea,’ I responded. ‘My son is a fabulous cook; he can create the recipes.’” And that’s how Marcia and Jory ended up with “The Chicken Piccata Caper,” “The Sacrificial Lamb,” and, of course, “A Deadly Delicious Dessert,” based on Marcia’s father’s recipe for donuts.

Says Marcia, “As I considered mystery stories for the book, I thought about places familiar to me. One story, ‘He’s A Dead Duck,’ was a reminder of a duck pond we lived near on Long Island, years ago. I loved the idea of creating a story beginning with a duck recipe!”

Son Jory (a marketing/advertising executive by day) adds, “In my family, today, we truly look forward to our evening meals. I have three kids (two girls, ages 9 and 7, and a boy, age 3). My grandfather would have adored them. What I cook allows my children to get know my grandfather through every bite of the cuisine he created. I hope the recipes in my mother’s book inspire good memories and experiences in others, too.”

“Really,” Marcia says, “I’m deadly serious!” Read more about Marcia’s writing and her series, The Senior Sleuths, on her website.

3 Top-Notch Foreign Crime Novels

High-velocity plots and gritty characters typify American and British crime thrillers. Yet, this style is an artistic (and marketing) choice, not a precondition for gripping fiction.

Here are three recent crime novels from Nigeria, Argentina, and India that I enjoyed tremendously that stand up to the US/UK’s best. 

*****My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite – For a book about violent death and two sisters’ efforts to cover it up, this entertaining fiction debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite is remarkably full of life.

You can’t help but be charmed by the narrator Korede, who early on in her tale provides this advice: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.” It’s a lesson she’s learned the hard way, covering up her sister Ayoola’s crimes now three times. The sisterly bond is more than the glue in this story; ultimately it is its subject.

Braithwaite infuses her narrative with insights into the culture, not only of Lagos, Nigeria, where the story is set, but also of the hospital where Korede works—the rivalries among the women staff and the administrators who do not lead. There’s not a shred of meanness in any of this, and much of it is quite funny.

Braithwaite’s light touch when exploring serious matters and the extraordinary honesty of the writing prompted numerous media outlets to name it one of the best books of last year, garnered it a 2019 Booker Prize nomination, and a made it a finalist for the 2019 Women’s Prize, among other honors. Best of all, it’s fun! Order it here. 

*****The Fragility of Bodies

By Sergio Olguín and translated by Miranda France – This award-winning Argentine novelist’s fast-paced 2012 crime novel is only now available in English. With all the elements of an engaging, visually arresting drama, no wonder it became an eight-episode tv series in 2017. The protagonist is a crusading reporter who acts with dedication and truth-telling, and if you enjoy the banter and oneupsmanship of the newsroom, as I do, you’ll find those scenes entertaining indeed.

Glamorous investigative journalist Verónica Rosenthal lives a privileged life in Buenos Aires. She’s pursued by attractive men, has loads of friends, drinks and smokes too much, but she’s serious about her investigative work. As a character, she’s fully developed, as are most of the men she interacts with, old and young, and there are some steamy sex scenes.

A wire service blurb about the suicide of a railway worker captures her attention when it quotes the man’s apology for the crimes he committed, especially the death of a child. Was the letter a confession or an explanation? Suicide by train is rather common, she learns. The drivers of the killer trains see the catastrophe coming, yet are helpless to prevent it. Some can never drive again.

Worse, on one specific train line, pairs of young boys are playing chicken with the speeding trains, and, occasionally, one waits too long to jump out of the way. Olguín makes the boys’ contests—how they think about them, how they prepare—into high-tension, truly horrifying encounters, and the closer Verónica gets to the truth behind this diabolical game, the greater the danger to her.

The admirable translation by Miranda France is so smooth, you’re never aware it actually is a translation. An unusual, brilliant read. Order it here.

*****Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

By Manu Joseph – When an apartment building collapses in Mumbai, the lone survivor is a man filled with regrets, and complicated efforts are under way to extricate him from the rubble. The catastrophe coincides with the election victory of a conservative Hindu nationalist party, and the influence of politics on the characters in the past and in the current emergency is never far away.

Author Joseph is known for his biting political satires, and the significance of this book is enhanced by his sly observations about the state of Indian politics. (If you read Dexter Filkins’s recent reporting in The New Yorker about the Modi government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, events in the novel will seem all-too possible.)  

The unknown man is alive, but confused and mumbling about a terrorist threat involving two people (but who?) headed somewhere (but where?) to carry out an attack (but what?). The intelligence forces see the need for drastic preventive action, but no one knows what that should be. Overreaction seems almost inevitable.

Joseph’s character descriptions are strong throughout, making it easy to appreciate the characters’ motivations, as well as the stresses of living in a culturally and religiously polarized society. Although he makes strong points, he’s not giving a lecture. He lets the story make his case. Joseph is a literary author who has won several awards for his previous novels and is a former columnist for the International New York Times. Order it here.

Picture: GDJ for Pixabay.

*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay

****City of Windows

snow city blizzard

By Robert Pobi – In a CrimeFictionLovers interview with Robert Pobi about his 2012 debut novel Bloodman, he revealed he’d wanted to write an old-fashioned character-driven story. He’s done it again with his new police procedural, City of Windows.

Ten years before the start of this book, Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, left his FBI career on uneasy terms after an accident with explosives nearly killed him. He now has a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, and one ceramic eye that doesn’t quite track with the other. Page’s challenges in dealing with the bionic parts of his body greatly increase the depth of his character.

Now Page teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan. He thinks his students are generally lackluster, but then he has a jaded view of most things. Except his family. His wife Erin is a pediatrician. They have five kids and a happy dog—a ragtag collection of children “whose biological parents had failed them and the system had given up on.” The family interactions provide a nice balance to the story’s crime elements, though the kids are possibly too cooperative.

As the university’s semester closes out for the Christmas holiday, a huge blizzard is under way. Many blocks south in midtown Manhattan, a bizarre shooting has occurred, and the news reports show Page’s old FBI colleagues working the case. The victim was in a moving vehicle, shot from a high angle from a considerable distance. Identifying the sniper’s nest will be difficult.

Because Page has an uncanny ability to plot bullet trajectories and lines of sight, that evening’s visit from his former FBI supervisor, though unwelcome, is not unexpected. The Bureau is involved because the dead man was one of their own, Page’s former partner. Page’s uncanny ability, though rusty, still works—automatic, instinctive, and unexplainable. He identifies a building almost eight football fields away from the point of impact.

Old jealousies arise, family needs pull at him, his former supervisor is as opaque as ever, there’s political pressure to pin the shooting on a Muslim extremist, without any evidence, and Page is not on a track that will make him friends, but when a second law enforcement officer is assassinated a mere thirteen hours later, any hope evaporates that the first agent’s death was a fluke. In his heart of hearts, Page loves this work.

The second victim was shot on the semi-crowded tram that operates between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, moving at almost eighteen miles an hour, through the continuing snowstorm, from a distance of almost a half-mile. Another impossible shot. And again, Page pinpoints the shooter’s position. When yet a third law enforcement officer is killed, it’s clear the killer is after specific individuals, but they seem unrelated and even are from different law enforcement agencies. Figuring out what they have in common calls on Page’s insightful investigatory skills, aided by three of those maligned college students.

As the bodies pile up, it appears that Page and his family are the assassin’s ultimate targets. This is the book’s weakest point, as it seems manufactured so the plot can culminate in a showdown between Page and the killer. While the rationale for the earlier murders follows a kind of twisted logic, the targeting of Page and his family does not. That problem aside, the story provides plenty of thrills along the way, and I hope Pobi writes more about Lucas Page.

Photo: from Pixabay

A Dose of Reality

gun, firearm, weapon

Although the average American may not encounter diabolical teen serial killers, sociopathic torturers, or gun-toting assassins with preternatural aim and massive martial arts skills of the types found so frequently in novels, there are plenty of real-life tragedies to baffle our humanity and cry out for explication. Readers and writers of crime fiction don’t have to look further than national crime statistics to understand the interest crime stories hold.

A friend passed on the following information from the October 2019 “violence and health” issue of Health Affairs, the nation’s top health policy journal. Here are some data points, drawn from the 20 or so peer-reviewed articles—the real-life backdrop against which crime stories are written and read.

In 2017, the United States experienced about 19,500 homicides and 47,000 suicides from all causes.

US violent death rates, which had fallen dramatically since the 1970s and held steady for fifteen years are rising again, driven by increasing rates of homicide and suicide by firearms. Rates of firearm deaths increased between 1999 and 2017 in most states; in 29 states, the rate increased more than 20%.

The firearm homicide rate in the United States is 25 times higher than that of other industrialized countries, while the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.

Many mass shootings involve domestic or family violence, as when the shooter opens fire on a group that includes a target individual.

More than one in five US children are physically abused, and about one in six are sexually abused.

About three in ten emergency physicians are assaulted every year.

About three percent of homicides are police killings.

Research on violence is underfunded. The federal government spends about $25 million per death on HIV research, about $200,000 per death on cancer research, and $600 per death on violence research.

In four surveys conducted between 2013 and 2019, in which gun owners were over-represented, the National Survey of Gun Policy found greater than 75% of respondents supported such policy measures as universal background checks, temporary gun removals based on family concerns, mandatory licensing for concealed carry including a safety test, and a mandatory safety course for first-time gun owners.

Journal editor Alan Weil says, “Even as media attention tends to focus on incidents of mass violence, it is the daily burden of violence in its many forms that takes the greatest toll.”

You can order a copy of this themed issue here.

Photo: r. nial bradshaw, creative commons license

This is Gomorrah

night sky, light pollution

By Tom Chatfield – The potentially nefarious capabilities of the Internet have seeped from science fiction to technothrillers to non-fiction to the morning news. Now comes a debut novel on the topic by someone who is not only a technology expert but an entertaining storyteller.

Azi Bellow is a 34-year-old hacker holed up in a garden shed in South London with a load of computer equipment, exploring the dark web. In Azi’s world, it’s hard to know whom to trust, but he does trust his online friend Sigma. She feels the same, and when she finds herself in trouble asks for Azi’s help. She’s assembled extensive evidence that 50 confirmed Islamic martyrs are not actually dead but have acquired new identities. Naturally, no security service is looking for them.

Sigma believes these terrorists obtained fake IDs from Gomorrah, the darkest corner of the dark web, but now she’s on the run. Almost immediately Azi’s inner sanctum is invaded by a woman named Anna who makes it clear that he must help Sigma or Anna will reveal his quasi-legal and illegal activities to the authorities.

Thus is a thrilling cat-and-mouse game launched, with the urgency of Sigma’s situation prying Azi out of the shed into the real world. They flee England, and later he seeks refuge in Athens and, finally, Silicon Valley. It’s hard to stay ahead of Gomorrah.

Chatfield’s writing is full of sly commentary on technology and human (mis)behavior that will leave you laughing, crying, or both. While Anna and her team aren’t very likeable, Azi is, along with his venal childhood friend Ad and the desperate Sigma. All are experts at manipulation and establishing “…a context within which someone’s only choice is to do what you want, even if (especially if) they believe the decision is up to them.”

Tom Chatfield is the author of several nonfiction books (and TED talks) exploring digital culture. He’s been a visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute and advises numerous organizations about technology and media. He was a launch columnist for BBC’s worldwide technology site, BBC Future. In the acknowledgements he says, “Unlike reality, fiction has an obligation to make sense.” And for most of This is Gomorrah, Chatfield’s constructed reality does make sense. By the time it becomes too crazy, you will have already decided to trust him and just go with it!

Photo: woodleywonderworks, creative commons license.

Four for the Road

****A Rising Man

India, dawn, village

Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.

****If She Wakes

Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.

*****The Siege of Troy

Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!

****The Chain

Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.

Photos: India (Mario Lapid), Trojan Horse (Ian Scott), creative commons license.