Weekend Movie Pick: Death on the Nile

If you’re hesitating to see Death on the Nile because you remember Kenneth Branagh’s previous expedition into the world of Dame Agatha—Murder on the Orient Express—and its tepid reviews, reconsider. The new film is enormous fun (trailer). You also may remember that many viewers couldn’t get past the super-sized mustache worn by Branagh (who plays Hercule Poirot)—such a contrast to David Suchet’s neat, restrained, Poirot-like pencil-line.

The extravagant facial hair just didn’t seem to fit, but the producers aren’t giving up. Instead, they give Poirot a touching back story that explains not only why he has the mustache, but links his adoption of it to his own heroism. Regardless, they’ve attracted a stellar cast to this new film, which includes Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Dawn French, Sophie Okenedo, and a whole array of memorable supporting players.

There’s been a British society wedding. A beautiful young woman of great wealth (Israeli actor Gal Gadot) has married a man well below her financial station (Armie Hammer). His vengeful ex-girlfriend (Emma Mackey) follows them throughout their Egyptian honeymoon, making the new bride increasingly uneasy. To escape their pursuer, the couple entice the whole party of hangers-on to board a luxury Nile cruise boat where, as one gleefully anticipates, mayhem ensues.

Christie was a master at creating a closed world—a stranded railway car, a party on a remote island—throwing people with barely-masked resentments together, and letting audiences anticipate what happens next. In this film, the unraveling of motives, opportunity, and nerve doesn’t disappoint.

Loved the CGI scenery though, as you probably know, the Nile River does not run alongside the pyramids, but more than five miles west. A bit of geographic and artistic license, but gorgeous throughout. The scenes of the sun rising over the river were spectacular, bringing back memories of my own Nile cruise with my friend Nancy in 2019. Memorable, but many fewer dead bodies.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 64%; audiences 82%.

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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Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

These mystery authors do! At the richly rewarding book sale at Killer Nashville, I was drawn to these two books by authors I’d just met. Both are set in New Orleans, both make terrific use of the city’s unique culture(s), so that you can almost smell the damp, hear the rhythms, and taste the food. You feel the heat. And the fear. Their unique and compelling characters will take you places you probably haven’t been before.

Love Power

By Martha Reed – Jane Byrne is a former New England police detective dealing with aftermath of a fatal shooting. Though she was exonerated, she left her job in disgrace and needs a new start. Not many places could offer a more different environment than New Orleans does.

Jane’s job working security at a self-storage facility doesn’t pay much, but at least she has interesting landlords. Even they are put in the shade by their ebullient and indiscreet transgender daughter Gigi. She’s a ball of fire through whom Jane meets an array of exotic and sexually nonconforming friends. I suspect Jane wouldn’t have previously thought of herself as straight-laced, but these new acquaintances are out there!

Danger comes calling as first one then another of Gigi’s friends is hideously murdered, and, while the NOPD is sort-of on the case, Jane can’t help but bring her police training into play, welcome or not. Can they solve the case before Gigi—or Jane herself—joins the murdered? An excellent read!

Order Love Power here from Amazon or order it here from IndieBound.

Under the Blood Moon

By Tracie Provost – I’ve read next-to-no vampire literature, with the exception of one Anne Rice novel decades ago. New Orleans, with its voodoo practitioners and affinity for the occult and bizarre is surely the perfect setting for one.

Juliette de Grammont is a skilled practitioner of magic arts and a vampire. She was staked more than 200 years ago, but now her body has been found and restored. Not only must Juliette learn to cope with modern life (cars, computers, cell phones!), but also she’s returned to life just as a major power struggle begins between two powerful vampire families (as treacherous as the Mafia, but without the pasta).

What enables the suspension of disbelief necessary to this narrative is Provost’s excellent world-building. She describes a culture and way of behaving that is consistent and just coherent enough that I got into the story, then the force of her characterizations kept me there, as the paranormal beasties descended. Highly entertaining.

Order Under the Blood Moon here from Amazon or order it here through IndieBound.

Best American Mystery & Suspense: 2021 – Part 2

Yesterday’s post delved into the steamy politics surrounding this collection and its new editor’s highly successful efforts to make the selection more representative of the breadth of American crime and mystery writing. Here are some of my favorites from the new collection.

A good example of how criminals paint themselves into tight corners—which once again proves the validity of Murphy’s Law—is E. Gabriel Flores’s story, “Mala Suerte.” In it, Carmelita wonders whether bad luck runs in families. A recounting of her family history suggests it may. But she’s plucky and talks her way into a pretty good job. Now, if only she would leave well enough alone. But she’s one of those people who cannot recognize when she’s about as well off as she has any right to expect, and you know she won’t.

It’s hard to say much about Ravi Howard’s suspense story, “The Good Thief,” without giving away the clever plot twist. A conscientious cook at a small-town luncheonette is asked to prepare a prisoner’s last meal, actually a cake the young man once ate in her establishment. Alone in the kitchen of the prison’s new wing—the biggest kitchen she has ever seen—you are alone with her thoughts, as she talks briefly with the warden and methodically goes about preparing the cake. So little action, so much happening.

Aya de León’s touching “Frederick Douglass Elementary” delves into the crimes a mother will commit in order to get her son into a decent elementary school, when all manner of bureaucracy is set against her. Keisha’s not a serial killer or a bank robber, or someone at the very fringes of society. She’s just a working single mom. Her crimes may seem trivial, but in the lives of her and her son, they are hugely consequential. (You could be forgiven for believing that the real crime is the condition of the schools that tempted her into law-breaking.) Any parent will recognize the stomach-dropping uncertainty that hits Keisha throughout.

In “The Killer,” by Delia C. Pitts, you return to familiar crime-story territory. A mother and small child are on the run from New York to Tampa, with a gangster hot on their heels. The story’s told from the point of view of their driver and bodyguard, who believes every stop along the way risks bringing their pursuer closer and every encounter risks betrayal. They stop at the kind of rural Virginia diner where the manager and cook have never met up with anyone as dangerous as their pursuer, and even that naivete presents a potential risk. First published in the literary magazine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, it’s a nail-biter.

I’d read “One Bullet. One Vote,” by Faye Snowden in the Low Down Dirty Vote collection, liked it then and on repeat. In the mid-1960s, a young Black man from up north has arrived in small-town Louisiana determined to convince his new wife’s relations to register to vote. “What you trying to do? Get us all killed?” His wife’s elderly grandmother is the only one who takes him up on it. Bureaucracy repeatedly thwarts her, but she’s dealt with that before. The author not only created an engaging story of people pushed to extremes, she provides a powerful demonstration of what’s meant by “systemic racism.” Not one, but two true heroes in this one.

Among the other authors included are Jenny Bhatt, Gar Anthony Haywood, Alison Gaylin, and Laura Lippman. If you’re puzzled by the title to the second story in the collection, SWAJ by Christopher Bollen—it’s the logo to the movie ‘Jaws,’ read backward. In some circles, that’s a thing.

On the whole, the selections were excellent, and you may find yourself returning to several of them for the issues and social truths they reveal. In this era of social media bubbles, when we hear mostly from people who share our beliefs and outlooks, seeing the world through the eyes of some of these characters is enormously valuable. If this collection presages what Cha will manage in future editions, they will be well worth looking forward to.

Yesterday: the controversy over editorial direction.

Best American Mystery and Suspense: 2021 – Part 1

Edited by Steph Cha–Short mystery/crime fiction lovers in the United States have been more than a little curious to see what changes might be made in this annual series since publisher HarperCollins yanked the project from founding editor Otto Penzler last year. The ousting prompted a juicy literary brouhaha. Some thought Penzler was mistreated, but many (including me) believed that, under Penzler’s guidance, the anthology trended too “white and male.” It wasn’t bringing in new voices and, by extension, wasn’t expanding the audience for the crime/mystery genre.

The new series editor is award-winning author Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay) with guest editor for the 2021 edition, Alafair Burke (The Better Sister). The process worked the same as under Penzler. Cha, as series editor, took an initial whack at the huge pile of stories and gave her favorites to Burke, who made the final selection.

The differences in the new collection are immediately obvious, in the refreshing diversity of authors and story content, as well as in the large number of new (to me) bylines. Undeterred by his ouster, Penzler maintains his past preferences in another new collection, confusingly titled, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021, now published by his own company, The Mysterious Press.

While the titles of the two collections have created some (deliberate?) confusion, their content couldn’t be more different. Only six of Penzler’s twenty-one selections (28 percent) are from women authors, compared to 60 percent of Cha’s. My data may not be perfect, but as far as I can tell, not one of Penzler’s 21 “best” was written by a person of color, whereas 45 percent of Cha’s selections were.

To bring a wider array of voices to the “best” table, Cha scoured literary journals, anthologies, and online publications. It’s heartening to see the number of high-quality, non-genre magazines that cherish high-quality crime and mystery fiction, well outside the usual stalwarts.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Not only diversity among the authors and the publications where their stories first found a home, but in the types of mystery and suspense stories represented. Whether your taste is for police procedurals or amateur sleuths, people getting their comeuppance, or giving it, or the hapless nature of criminals, you’ll find stories that hit those buttons, from across the social spectrum. They aren’t all conventional crime stories, either; in several, the characters are up against implacable bureaucracies.

Tomorrow: Some of my favorites from this year’s selection.

Wayward Girls

A novel that sets out to make a political point runs the risk of straying into the polemical—less novel, more essay. That’s a fate that co-authors Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel avoid in their engrossing new crime thriller, Wayward Girls. A dedication reveals the novel was “inspired by the well-documented horrors” at a wilderness school in Texas, Artesia Hall, where a female student died in 1972, and by Florida’s infamous Dozier School for Boys, which finally closed in 2011. The result is a highly readable book with a strong sense of purpose.

The story begins in the present day, when the adult Jude receives a call from an old friend, known as Farmer Max, who tells her that her old boarding school, Talbot Hall for Girls, is about to be demolished. Jude had a best friend and fellow-sufferer there—Camille—whom she’s estranged from. Farmer Max calls Camille too.

Jude is now an artist, making a reasonable living with sales of her paintings; Camille is a psychotherapist and college professor. Both women decide to make the trip to central Florida to witness the destruction. Camille digs out her journals, and the impressions of her fifteen-year-old self lead you into the girls’ difficult past.

The school is a giant, gothic-looking building with fake turrets and a tower in the middle of nowhere. What terrible acts brought Jude and Camille to Talbot? Camille skipped school to spend time with her boyfriend (she’s still a virgin). Her psychotherapist, Dr. Hedstrom recommended Talbot, and her parents were happy to have her out of the house. Jude’s therapist reported she had the “potential for violence” after Jude, provoked, shoved her. A “more structured environment” was recommended for them both.

Not that the Talbot students are angels. Warnings pass among them not to trust their housemother, Mrs. Dalfour, or Jack, the young handyman who spies on them. At least Camille is away from creepy Dr. Hedstrom. But he takes a part-time position at the school and keeps trying to insinuate himself into Camille’s life. Another new girl enters the mix: Wanda Ann Mosby, the wildest of them—loud and brash and undereducated.

When some of Camille’s possessions go missing, she makes a big deal of it, but then they reappear. She doesn’t know what to think, but the other girls do. They think she’s crazy, and you can’t believe anything she says. A perfect gaslight.

The reconstruction of Camille and Jude’s teen years occupies most of the story, but there are flash forwards to today as they meet at Farmer Max’s bar and juke joint. Authors Matturro and Koepsel provide hints about the final tragedy all those years before—a fire, an allegation of murder—and it’s uncertain whether Camille and Jude can get past all that to reconnect.

Matturro and Koepsel have plotted the tale well, with high stakes and believable motives. The central Florida location—hot, humid, buggy—seems the very definition of a neglected, out-of-sight place where bad things can happen unimpeded. The authors falter a bit in characterization, without the depth you might want, and Dr. Hedstrom, especially, is too transparently awful. Nevertheless, I grew to care about Jude and Camille, about Wanda and Farmer Max and how they might escape Talbot’s influence.

Husbands’ ability to commit their unruly wives to a mental hospital in the 1800s is fairly well known. The cases that inspired Matturro and Koepsel show the continued vulnerability of young people, especially girls and women, to exploitation. And if you think society has finally extinguished the desire to control women through drastic means, you haven’t been following the sad saga of Britney Spears.

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Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

Hitchcock: Howdunit

If you’re like me, it was years after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho before you could take a shower without thinking of That Scene. I have a walk-in shower now, and I can always see who’s coming!

Film historian Max Alvarez in conjunction with New Plaza Cinema presented a Zoom program on Hitchcock last week that toured his audience through memorable moments from many of the director’s 57 feature films. We knew whodunit—Hitchcock—this was a howdunit.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Americans tend to pick films based on the actors. Hitchcock was one of the rare directors in Hollywood history who was himself a draw, like the Coen Brothers or Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino today.

Hitch’s fame did constrain the types of movies he could make without violating public expectation, however. His films tended toward the charismatic villain, the woman in peril, and a big conspiracy. The scripts came from his (sometimes brief) collaborations with some of the leading writers of the day: Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), and many others.

Even though he made so many memorable movies, what catapulted him into prominence in the 1950s was the popularity of his television programs. And he was shameless about using them to promote his films.

Hitchcock’s steps in making the memorable movie Vertigo started with the “treatment,” eight to ten typed pages, resembling a short story, which described what happens in detail, beginning to end. After showing us the initial page, Alvarez showed the beginning of the shooting script. Hitchcock liked to have every camera angle and shot planned out in advance—close-up, medium shot, panorama, whatever. Next Alvarez showed the storyboards that a graphic artist created from the shooting script. They were a sort of (wordless) comic book version, showing the action in every shot. Finally, he showed the way the same scene looked in the final film, which in the theater looked so natural (of course he’d hang onto the gutter that way), but replicated the previous, meticulously planned steps almost exactly.

But even the best laid plans can fall prey to reality, and Hitch would change scenes and shots that didn’t turn out well or as expected. Occasionally, he’d fly by the seat of his pants—like the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Also, he loved in-camera special effect. An example is the famous “purple dress” scene from Topaz, in which unseen stage hands pulled strings so that the character’s dress fanned out around her as she fell.

Alvarez attributes Hitch’s visual mastery to the large body of work he did in the silent film industry, taking on all kinds of jobs, up to the point when, in his 20s, he was allowed to direct. For him, the visuals told the story, and he always made sure there was a story to tell.

By the way, Hitch’s own favorite film was 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Watch Shadow of a Doubt.

Read one great director interviewing another in the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut from Amazon.

Read Richard Brody’s “The Greatness of ‘Psycho’” in The New Yorker, covering the films about Hitchcock.

Disappointed Expectations

You may have noticed that the book reviews on this website tend toward the positive. I decided a few months ago to post reviews here of only those books I could recommend. I’m choosy about what I read in the first place, but if a book doesn’t meet expectations, OK. What’s the point of giving a tepid review to a book that probably won’t ever come to the notice of most readers? Let those authors have their shot. Tastes differ.

Two books I’ve read lately are exceptions. Both are receiving a healthy dose of publicity—one because the author is popular and the other, a debut, because the publisher has put big bucks behind it. So these books may actually may attract your attention. Here’s what troubled me about them.

The Hollows

Mark Edwards is a popular British thriller writer. He set this story at a family camp in Maine—remote, wooded. A grisly double murder occurred there twenty years earlier, and the local teenager thought to have committed the crime disappears and isn’t seen again. When British journalist Tom and his teenage daughter arrive for a getaway, they learn right away about the killings and that many of the camp’s visitors are murder-porn tourists. Creepy events ensue. Is the place haunted, has the killer been living in the woods all this time, why are people warning them to leave? Of course, they don’t take any of this good advice (or there wouldn’t be a story), but Tom’s second-guessing and the predictable plot become tiresome.

Falling

TJ Newman’s debut thriller is an exciting read, so much so (especially for us formerly-frequent flyers) that it may distract you from the plot’s implausibility. But after you close the book, the head-scratching will begin. Newman is a former flight attendant and captures the technical aspects of commercial flight very persuasively and her flight attendant characters are nicely three-dimensional. In a nutshell, a transcontinental passenger airline is hijacked and the pilot is told he must crash the plane when it reaches New York. If he refuses, his kidnapped wife and children will be killed. But aside from the behavioral clichés in the story, the bad guys’ plot is way way more complicated than it needed to be. Ultimately, it makes no sense. (I won’t say why in case you decide to give it a go.) There’s a lot of feel-good stuff near the end that doesn’t hold up either. This book has already been optioned for film and has Hollywood fakery written all over it.

The Huntress

The Huntress, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller is a real page-turner—good thing too because there are a lot of pages. Soon after World War II, widowed Boston antiques dealer Daniel McBride meets Austrian refugee Annaliese Weber and falls for her. She has a four-year-old daughter and a bit of a murky past whose pieces don’t quite fit. Daniel is in love and oblivious, but his teenage daughter Jordan is not. In the chapters where she’s the center, you feel her love for her father, as she tries to reconcile her stepmother’s affectionate behavior and her doubts about the woman.

Over in Europe, two Nazi-hunters—a sophisticated Englishman and a Polish-Hungarian former GI—have teamed up to track down war criminals overlooked by the Nuremberg trials. Ian, the erudite Englishman, received a solid education, but it’s Tony, from polyglot Queens, who “could talk to anyone, usually in their native language.”

By 1950, they have a good track record, despite the shoestring nature of their operation. A woman they would really like to find is die Jägerin, The Huntress. She had been the mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, now dead. During the war, she murdered numerous people, including six refugee children, and one of her victims was Ian’s brother Sebastian.

Ian first heard about Seb’s death from a young woman, “all starved eyes and grief,” whom he encountered in a Polish hospital. Nina Borisovna Markova is the third leg of this sturdy triangle of point-of-view characters—Jordan, Ian, and Nina.

Nina grew up in a tiny village in Siberia—the youngest of several children, with no mother, siblings who fled, and a violent alcoholic father—dreaming of escape, but where and to what? The answer comes the day she sees her first airplane. She heads west to a city where she learns to fly, becoming a member of the first Soviet women’s flying squad, and active in bombing the German invaders. It’s a perfect life for her until her father’s drunken denunciations of Stalin reach the wrong ears. Unless she escapes the Soviet Union, she’s likely to be rounded up and imprisoned too. The Siberian legends and superstitions of Nina’s childhood are woven into all these experiences, and the result is a complex, prickly, utterly unique personality.

Quinn’s characters are passionate about their concerns, though Nina’s passions are at best only half-tamed. Because die Jägerin tried to kill Nina, she wants to find the woman just as much as Ian does. And, she knows what die Jägerin looks like. When Tony stumbles on a faint clue that leads them to Boston, they hope to pick up the murderer’s scent. They have no idea she’s living as a respectable housewife right under their noses.

To sum up this story in a single word, it would be “satisfying.” All Quinn’s characters and their concerns are compelling, and their rich experiences support the plot. There’s more than a touch of romance, and the good-humored banter provided by Tony is an effective counterpoint to the seriousness of the hunters’ quest. In short, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.