The Innocents by Bridget Walsh

This is the second in the entertaining historical mystery series Bridget Walsh launched last year with The Tumbling Girl. The stories are set in a somewhat seedy Victorian England music hall called the Variety Palace.

The Innocents takes its title from a mass-casualty event that occurred at Christmastime fourteen years before the main story. In a different theater, subsequently closed, a sold-out audience of children had been promised presents after the show. Actors on stage threw the treats toward the audience in the stalls. Seeing they would never get any of the presents, the children seated upstairs in the balconies and galleries rushed downstairs only to find that the doors into the main auditorium bolted shut against them. In the massive pileup of small bodies, pushing and shoving, many children were injured and one hundred eighty-three suffocated. No one was ever held to account for the tragedy—a bitter pill in the hearts of a great many families.

Minnie Ward, protagonist of the earlier novel and this one, is a skit-writer for the Variety Palace. She is temporarily in charge of the Palace while her boss, Edward Tansford (Tansie) recovers from the tragic events recounted in the earlier book. (While author Walsh makes frequent reference to those events, it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to follow the story in this one.) Minnie is again teamed up with former policeman, now private detective, Albert Easterbook. You can’t help but believe that, if the series goes on long enough, those two will finally capitulate to their obvious mutual attraction, but so far Minnie is holding fast. Well, wavering.

Now it’s 1877, and the theater world has experienced a series of recent murders. They hit close to home when one of the Palace’s performers reports his brother missing and asks for Minnie’s help. When Minnie and Albert discover the missing man’s body in his dressing room, the realization gradually takes hold that all of the dead were connected in some way to the Christmastime tragedy. What’s more, all the deaths involved some form of suffocation. With so many people and families affected by the children’s deaths, it’s a challenge for Minnie and Albert to figure out where to begin their investigations.

Tansie reemerges, ready to take the helm of the Palace again but soon distracted again—this time by the disappearance of his monkey, who, he believes, has been snatched by a nefarious character who runs dog fights. Here Walsh gives you a peek at not just the talented and sometimes tony denizens and patrons of the Victorian theater world, but also a look at a decidedly seamy side of London life. Her vivid descriptions of these distinctive settings and the picturesque people they attract add considerably to the charm of the whole narrative.

Of course Albert worries about Minnie’s safety and of course she takes chances she shouldn’t, but in the fast pace of events here, you don’t have time to dwell on her occasional lapses of good sense. Nor do you lose confidence in the basic goodness of the main characters. Flaws and all, they are eminently likeable (even the monkey, who hides in the theater’s rafters and pees on the audience below).

Meanwhile, other complications have arisen. There’s plenty of plot here, engaging characters, a  colorful setting, and a fast pace. If you like to lose yourself in another era with a solid historical mystery, this is one you may really enjoy!

Why Does Sherlock Holmes Endure?

For the past few weeks, I’ve reported here the thoughts of some of today’s leading authors of Sherlock efforts to reproduce his world. These authors care passionately about the Holmes/Watson legacy. They demonstrated this through their contributions to the anthology, Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, edited by Richard T. Ryan. It’s one of a series filling in the years 1881-1886, when almost no Holmes cases were reported. Contemporary writers, not content to assume the duo temporarily retired during that period, have enthusiastically created adventures to fill in the gap.

One last question I asked them was why Holmes and Watson have had such enduring reader appeal. (People who’ve seen these posts in social media have also weighed in on this question!) Author DJ Tyrer says that, for him, the attraction lies in the rapport between Holmes and Watson. Shelby Phoenix terms it their “genuine fondness for each other.” Tyrer says “There’s a depth to their relationship, their friendship, and their investigative partnership that is more than the sum of its parts.”

George Jacobs says that friendship helps anchor the sometimes aloof and calculating Holmes—“ultimately unknowable” says Katy Darby. Yet, Jacobs says, they’re both very likeable heroes, with Watson “the classic everyman,” so brave and loyal readers keep rooting for him, and with Holmes’s strong sense of morality—even when it contradicts that law or social convention. As Paul Hiscock points out, literature has many great detectives, but far fewer memorable sidekicks. “Readers can respect Watson, just as Holmes does. His relatability allows Holmes to be exceptional without alienating the reader.” (The duo of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock comes to mind.) Frequent Holmes/Watson pasticher David Marcum finds the pairing an “amazing narrative device to show a brilliant person—someone always two steps ahead of what’s going on—from the perspective of the everyman narrator.”

Add to all that the strength of Doyle’s writing, especially his characterizations, says Hassan Akram: “His characters live and breathe.” Also, Doyle focuses on the crime, Phoenix points out, not on tension and distrust between characters, as many writers do today. Darby points out that, because the stories “are easy and fun to read, they’re often underestimated as the highly skilled work they are,” in terms of plot, action, and character development.

Author George Gardner believes that our continued exposure to these personalities and their world has made the stories “readily imaginable to the reader.” We instantly recognize the names of Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and Baker Street, but they are remote enough in time to give “an air of the fantastic to the stories.” Holmes is “the epitome of a detective” for many, many people, says Gustavo Bondoni, and readers have found his fog-covered streets a most evocative time and place. Even people who read his adventures in the World War I trenches, like Kevin Thornton’s grandfather, eagerly introduced them to later generations.

Developing and writing a story in the late-Victorian London setting, “is even more immersive than reading one,” says Akram. So, let’s see how he did with his story, generously larded with wry wit, “The Return of the Buckinghamshire Baronet.”

Here goes: A partially burned telegram is a clue to the distant town where Holmes believes a bank robber has hidden his loot. Holmes and Watson’s old acquaintance, a Baronet, lives there and is about to be married. He appears at Baker Street with the astonishing proposal that Holmes perform his “deducing” act at the wedding. (Holmes, not surprisingly, declines.) Still, the Baronet offers a week’s invitation to stay at his manor house before the ceremony, and there, another species of financial pandemonium soon erupts.

I asked Akram about his use of humor in this story, and he thinks “it’s more difficult to use humor to good effect when the characters are so familiar.” Thus, most of his story’s humor comes from their slightly dim friend and other minor characters. The personas of Holmes and Watson having reached “almost mythical” status, he says, requires that they be treated with complete respect. Doyle’s own sense of the absurd “has been underrated in the face of his more serious elements, though it’s clearly visible in a story like ‘The Red-Headed League,’ when Holmes and Watson burst into laughter on hearing the client’s story.”

The popularity of Holmes and Watson endures, regularly refreshed by the work of the authors mentioned above. Their stories in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885 are:
D.J. Tyrer – “The Japanese Village Mystery”
Shelby Phoenix – “Sherlock Holmes and the Six-Fingered Hand Print”
George Jacobs – “The Mystery of the Cloven Cord”
Katy Darby – “The Adventure of the Lock Hospital”
Paul Hiscock – “The Light of Liberty”
David Marcum – “The Faulty Gallows”
George Gardner – “The Adventure of the Damaged Tomb”
Gustavo Bondoni – “The Burning Mania”
Kevin Thornton – “Tracks Across Canada” and “Tracked Across America”

Crime Stories That Take the Heat

Heavy-duty noir seems not quite right for sunny, summery August. So here are two recent books light and bright enough to compete with surf and sand: The Tumbling Girl by Bridget Walsh and the comic novel Clonk! by JP Rieger.

The new Victorian-era mystery The Tumbling Girl blends murderous deeds with a healthy dose of romance between an unlikely pair of investigators. It evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of 1870s London, while believably capturing the social class distinctions of the day.

Minnie Ward is a retired music hall performer who writes songs and skits, and day-to-day oversees the Variety Theatre’s mix of tumblers, tightrope walkers, singers, not-so-funny comedians, Shakespearean actors, plate-spinners, and more, including a troublesome monkey. With this crew, something is always going on—cast-member drama, audience eruptions, the monkey in the rafters peeing on the customers below. Author Walsh has created a world that is intriguing, full of story possibilities, and rife with unexpected developments.

Albert Easterbrook is a public school-educated private detective. His friends in the police force are tracking a serial killer who has targeted the city’s women for a decade. Footsteps in the dark and chance encounters can be more than a little anxiety-provoking for Minnie and her friends.

When one of the acrobats is found hanged below the pest-ridden Adelphi Arches, the police dismiss her death as a suicide. But Minnie and the girl’s mother don’t believe it; they want Albert to find out what really happened. Minnie volunteers to help him, despite his objections that it’s too dangerous, as it proves to be. You also have a chance to see a bit of Victorian high-life, as members of the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London seem to be involved.

If I had to sum up this story in a single word, it might be “romp,” because it moves fast, there’s plenty of entertainment along the way, and, even if you’re pretty sure where Minnie and Albert’s relationship will end up, getting there is half the fun.

In Clonk! you follow eight guys, friends from high school, who’ve managed to stay in touch and call on each other’s help for all kinds of matters, great and small. You might term the book a police procedural, because the main character, Kev Dixit, is a Baltimore, Maryland, police officer, but his procedures are hardly textbook. He has a brilliant way of subverting the system and solving problems outside—sometimes far outside—any approved method. His way of outfoxing the detective exam is LOL.

Two of these longtime friends are not nearly as bright as they think they are and become embroiled in a fraudulent real estate scheme. Arson is involved. In their worst possible moment, their old pal Kev helps them out, along with Chris, an ever-optimistic actor and terrible singer who believes his big theatrical break is always just around the corner, and Brian (the Troll), an undertaker. Yes, a dead body is involved.

Three more alumni of their Catholic high school who play smaller, but plot-vital parts are a disgraced doctor, an agoraphobic FBI agent, and an over-the-top attorney called in to save the doctor’s bacon.

You’ll find some uniquely Baltomorean touches and topics here, yet you can get the sense that these guys are essentially well-meaning, occasional screw-ups whom you could find almost anywhere. Occasionally they reminisce about their high school days as (no surprise!) the weirdos no one else wanted to spend time with. These backward glances lay the groundwork for how they react in a crisis as adults. And the crises keep coming.

A lot happens in this book’s 217 pages, as the world of policing the Dixit way hurtles forward. The novel is a testament to the value of loyalty and friendship, with Dixit, as author Rieger says, “a fortress in the storm of life’s absurdities.” Loved it!

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****Mrs. Cox

earphones

By Jan Moore, narrated by Jilly Bond – It’s January 1608. London is dark most of the time, and the citizens are restless. Food shortages put residents of the poorer neighborhoods in increasing peril, though the authorities are still hiding the extent of the grain shortage. When a well respected woman of the Aldgate neighborhood dies under mysterious circumstances there is no lack of suspects. Just proof.

In Mrs. Cox, Jan Moore has created a powerful sense of time and place, and one of her story’s most salient features is the disregard the men have for women. The victim’s landlord, Mr. Sutton, proprietor of the alehouse across the street, investigates her disappearance and discovers not a body, but the bones of a hand, burnt in the fireplace, a detail based on a true crime of the era. He’s a rascally sort and people are willing to believe he might have done her in.

The local Alderman, Blincoe, is trying to expand the domain of Aldgate through the acquisition of Duke’s Place, widening of the roads, and construction of housing projects, with an eye eventually to becoming Mayor. A number of people, including the current mayor, suspect him of dirty dealing, but aren’t sure how to stop him. Blincoe also had a motive for murder, because the victim could thwart his development plans.

Moore’s narrative is as full of colorful characters as a Dickens novel, and some of their names are equally apt. Particularly entertaining is the newspaperwoman Mrs. Gosson, so close in sound to gossip, which well describes her stock-in-trade. The irrepressible laundress Bitty is a lot of fun, and the vivid procession of sticky-fingered maids, apprentice needleworkers, and persons of both sexes harboring secrets will stay in your mind long after the story ends.

Rumors suggest the murderer was a woman called Mrs. Abbott, who was wearing a dress decorated with cobweb lace. Eventually, a woman so described is found. She’s tried, found guilty, and due to hang, but Mrs. Cox knows she’s not guilty and persists in trying to save her. Moore has done a creditable job imagining the difficulties and prejudices the women would face, confronting the disinterest and intransigence of the male authorities and the venality of those with a smidge of influence.

I enjoyed the book’s award-winning narrator, Jilly Bond. She has a significant challenge in developing distinctive voices and speech mannerisms for this colorful cast and conveys the different women expertly. The men’s voices are a little less convincing, yet they are easily told apart. If you like historical mysteries or pre-Dickensian London, you’ll find this book both intriguing and delightful! Mrs. Cox is currently available only in its audio version, was a UK finalist for an Audible New Writing Grant: Crime Edition 2018.

Photo above: John O’Nolan, creative commons license


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Listen Up! Take 2

earphones

photo: John O’Nolan, creative commons license

Three notable audiobooks for your consideration: the fantastic debut novel She Rides Shotgun, award-nominee The Breakdown, and Hangman, follow-up to last year’s mega-hit, Ragdoll. Starting with the best of the three.

*****She Rides Shotgun
By Jordan Harper, narrated by David Marantz – Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for best debut novel, this is the audio equivalent of a real page-turner (though I’m never tempted to listen at 2x speed!). When Nate McClusky leaves prison after refusing to work for the dangerous gang Aryan Steel, a death warrant is issued for him and his family. He finds out how determined the killers are when he discovers his ex-wife and her new husband murdered, and realizes his eleven-year-old daughter Polly will be next. He picks her up at school before the killers find her, and the chase is on. They’re practically strangers to each other, as he’s been incarcerated for most of her childhood. She’s a quirky kid, shy and smart as a whip, teddy bear in tow.

Nate hasn’t had much parenting experience, but he warms to the role, and two have terrifying—and sometimes heartwarming—adventures roaming Southern California, as they gradually become partners in evading their would-be killers as well as the police. Betrayal is a constant anxiety. Based on the premise—the criminal dad, the kid—I didn’t think I’d like this book as much as I did, no small part of which relates to Marantz’s excellent narration.

Another recent and remarkable book about a criminal father raising a daughter was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, also an award nominee.

***The Breakdown
By B.A. Paris, narrated by Georgia Maguire – Another domestic thriller of the “is she going crazy, or is someone doing this to her?” variety. Unfortunately, the big reveal seemed obvious early on, which tarnished the entertainment value. I selected it because the book was on the “Best Novel” short-list for a 2018 Thriller Award. Compared to the other two nominees I read, it falls short of the nail-biting excitement of Gin Phillips’s Fierce Kingdom or the fascination of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will.

Rain on Windshield

Iwan Gabovitch, creative commons license

The story takes place in and around a mid-sized English market town. One night, as Cass is driving through the woods to her isolated (natch) home in a terrible rainstorm, she sees a woman in her car, stopped by the side of the road. Since the woman doesn’t appear to be in distress, rather than get drenched, she doesn’t offer aid. The next morning, she learns the woman has been murdered. And that she knows her.

Guilt over not helping, strange occurrences that make her think the killer may now be stalking her, and fear that, like her mother, she may be suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s make for a pretty mopey outlook. The narration reflects that, though I admire Maguire’s portrayal of the long-suffering husband. You can hear—and empathize with—his growing doubts about his wife’s mental state. If you like the “gaslight” sub-genre, you may enjoy this.

**Hangman
By Daniel Cole, narrated by Alex Wyndham – This book follows on the successful 2017 thriller Ragdoll, and involves some of the same characters, charged with solving a series of baffling murders that hits London and New York. Are they Ragdoll-related or grisly copycats? DCI Emily Baxter, who was key to solving the Ragdoll case, is flown to New York to liaise [!]. I like how prickly she is—don’t try to sweet-talk her for god’s sake! The CIA operative is an engaging character too.

I’m not squeamish, but my lack of enthusiasm for Hangman derives from its excess of sadistic violence, which appeared ramped up for shock value. A male narrator was chosen for the audiobook, though usually the narrator’s gender matches that of the protagonist. Possibly the publishers thought the extreme violence would be better portrayed in a male voice, and Wyndham does a fine job presenting UK and US characters of varying ethnicities.

Read an earlier Listen Up! compilation here.

***In Strangers’ Houses

Cleaner

photo: ePi.Longo, creative commons license

By Elizabeth Mundy – Highly visible as an “issue” and yet highly invisible as individuals, East European immigrants and best friends Lena Szarka and her friend Timea Dubay clean London’s houses in the daytime and its offices at night. Although the work offers them more upward mobility than would be possible back in Hungary, working in a foreign country isn’t easy. The language is difficult, the systems and culture are unfamiliar, and nasty anti-immigrant sentiment lies just below the surface.

Most of Elizabeth Mundy’s debut murder mystery is told from Lena’s point of view, enabling a close-up perspective on the complexities and hazards of immigrant life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As house cleaners, she and Timea work in others’ private spaces, see their most intimate secrets, and observe their habits. It is an act of faith that they can do so safely and will be paid for their efforts. Mundy has created engaging characters facing believable challenges. It’s no surprise this is intended as the first of a series featuring the warm-hearted Lena.

Lena is a few years older than Timea and coping fairly well. But Timea, a single mother, is struggling. She’s never told anyone who her son Laszlo’s father is—and though it was hard to leave the boy behind, she expects this sojourn abroad to jump-start a better life for them both. The women’s childhood friend Istvan, a handsome television actor, also lives in London. Istvan is married to a well-off woman who has helped his career, and he’s achieved a lifestyle starkly contrasting with that of the women, one that lets him concentrate on what is most important, himself.

Early in the story, Lena begins to worry about Timea. Her friend is increasingly unhappy and confesses that the problem is someone she must get away from. When Timea doesn’t come home one night, Lena’s worry blossoms into fear, and when she doesn’t return by the next day, Lena goes to the police. They are disinclined to take the disappearance seriously. Experience tells them Timea is most likely with a boyfriend and will turn up.

When Timea’s body does turn up, floating in Regent’s Canal, the police take a brief interest, but conclude the death was suicide. They hold this opinion even more strongly once the autopsy reveals Timea was three months pregnant. Mundy rounds out her characters in a series of flashbacks to Lena, Timea, and Istvan as children, a history that convinces Lena that Timea would never kill herself. In true amateur detective form, Mundy gives Lena no choice but to embark on the investigation herself.

Mundy shows a somewhat different facet of London than we usually see and makes Lena’s situation fresh and interesting. The writing is solid, though the police detective sometimes sounds as if he’s memorized a criminology textbook. By contrast, Lena’s slight awkwardness in expression is part of the book’s charm. After all, English is a bit of a struggle for her, but she sticks with it bravely, just as she does the pursuit of Timea’s killer. A quick read without a lot of graphic violence or sex. I’ll be interested to see more from Mundy.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

*****Back Up

photo: Darren Price, creative commons license

By Paul Colize, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie This crime thriller by Belgian writer Paul Colize about a British rock band was short-listed for a number of prizes when first released. Only now available in English, the book should find a natural home and receptive audience among rock fans everywhere.

It’s 1967. The rock band Pearl Harbor is taking a break after a hastily organized, late night Berlin recording session, and its four members have scattered. Within days, each of them is dead and unaccountably flush with cash.

One is found at the bottom of a swimming pool in a luxury hotel in Palma de Mallorca, one with a bullet in his head in a hotel room in Hamburg, one crushed under a train in a Berlin U-Bahn station, and one who was apparently hiding out in a London hotel and jumped from his fifth floor room.

Who could believe all these deaths were coincidental? The authorities, with their scattered jurisdictions and the differing modes of death believe it, especially when the bodies—and the victims’ histories—reveal alarmingly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse. The band members become no more than rock n roll detritus, washed up by the tide of 1960s counterculture. It’s a bang-up start to this well-constructed mystery.

Fast forward to 2010. In Brussels, a homeless man is hit by a car near the Gare du Midi train station. He’s badly injured, cannot speak, cannot be identified, and comes to be known as X Midi. You are privileged to read his thoughts, however, as he recuperates. He reconstructs his past and his fleeting but deadly association with Pearl Harbor in chapters that alternate with those narrated by his caretakers. They are trying with infinite patience to help him recover from locked-in syndrome, which leaves him almost totally incapable of communicating.

Drug and alcohol use is part of the immersive environment Colize creates and manages not to become tedious. Rumors of U.S. military involvement in the testing psychoactive drugs simmer. There’s lots of music-making too, which is filled with energy and considerable joy. Berlin’s rock scene takes place in bars and nightclubs, and the bartenders and denizens are portrayed convincingly.

Nevertheless, you may be grateful when X Midi’s narrative emerges from his substance-abusing days to confront the deeper and more sinister evil dogging him. Only gradually does he come to understand the true significance of Pear Harbor’s fateful and final recording session, in which he served as the substitute drummer. The back up.

And murder has a long tail.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis & Krieps in Phantom Thread

If this is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie (trailer) turns out to be an odd swan song. Apparently the idea it would be his last came over Day-Lewis in reaction to this character, for reasons he can’t quite explain, but perhaps related to the draining intensity with which he prepares for his roles.

Reynolds Woodcock, the British fashion designer Day-Lewis plays, doesn’t display the physical energy of Hawkeye (in one of my favorite movies of all time, The Last of the Mohicans) or the agonizing choices facing Abraham Lincoln, or the disturbing intensity of knife-throwing Bill “The Butcher” in Gangs of New York. Woodcock’s challenge, a drive for perfection, comes not from circumstances, but eats him from within.

Woodcock is a fastidious, often languid character. Some of the dialog was included in a radio review, and I was struck by how slooowly Day-Lewis spoke and the long pauses between utterances. You’re less aware of that watching him, of course, because even when he’s not speaking, he’s doing a lot. The eyebrow, the little smile, the internal consideration, the piercing glance, the innate elegance. While the acting is wonderful, the character Woodcock is not especially likeable, and Day-Lewis is too honest an actor to try to make him so.

Woodcock runs his domain—domestic and commercial—his way, as a well turned out obsessive. He cannot abide a disturbance at breakfast or his whole day is ruined. When his new lady-love Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) scrapes the burnt bits from her toast (with a microphone hidden in the jam-pot, surely), it’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard for the entire audience.

The Fitzroy Square townhouse where he lives and conducts business is presided over by his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows exactly how to keep order. Is she a benign presence or an over-protective monster? Even she is thwarted when Alma realizes that, to keep her man, she must bring him low.

The production team had fun—Woodcock’s breakneck driving trips (an uncharacteristic unleashing of spirit), the 1950s ambience, the workshop with its dowdy middle-aged women—seamstresses in real life—producing fabulous garments they could and would never wear. Day-Lewis himself spent many months studying the craft of clothing design, and director Anderson has remarked on the actor’s fine hands, able to do work believably, to sew.

Fashion historian Alistair O’Neill has commented that the rich satin fabrics used remind him of Charles James’s post-war designs. (Luscious show about James at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014.) In its workshop and showroom scenes, the film eerily echoes the PBS mini-series, The Collection, which aired last fall. Couture in the 1950s is an infrequent setting for drama; is it the hive mind that inspires two such resonant efforts in the same few months?

The film has garnered six Academy Award nominations—best picture, actor (Day-Lewis), director, supporting actress (Manville), score, and costume design. If Mark Bridges hadn’t received that last, well-deserved nomination, surely he would have retired.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences, 70%.

****Swing Time

Swing Time, children dancing

photo: cavalier 92, creative commons license

By Zadie Smith – Yes, I do read good books that are not crime fiction, and this is one of them! The term “frenemies” could have been coined to describe the long relationship between the book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey, drawn together by being the only mixed-race children in a dance class. They meet, play, pirouette, and study in council housing in North London.Tracey is the talented one, accepted into a selective performing arts program, her future seemingly assured.

“Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity,” said Annalisa Quinn in an NPR review. The story swings back and forth between present-day events and flashbacks about the girls’ childhood, their growing up, and their sporadic encounters over the years. Later the narrator sees her in minor roles in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, ironically—before her career fades from view.

The dance theme is present throughout, a universal uniting characters through time and across cultures: “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” Late in the book, dance even becomes a weapon.

The narrator, meanwhile, has landed what seems like a plum job: assistant to Australian pop star Aimee. Aimee and her team divide their time between London and New York. Aimee’s peripatetic lifestyle, kids and nannies in tow, means perpetual rootlessness for the narrator, a disconnect not just from her past—her childhood friend, her parents—but also from a future of her own.

Aimee gets the notion to establish a girls’ school in rural West Africa, and some of the novel’s most heartfelt passages involve the narrator’s yearning to connect with the Africans and the disconnect between the rich pop star and her entourage and the people she wants to help. Aimee’s motives are genuinely kindly, but implementing them on the ground is far more complicated than she imagines.

The narrator certainly is a perceptive observer, but will she grab hold of life and learn to dance to her own tune?