*****Maisie Dobbs

cup of tea

photo: Raheel Shahid, creative commons license

Though this book hasn’t acquired the patina of age, the legion of fans for the award-winning 13-book series would no doubt enthusiastically endorse its classic status. Having read the first one, I’m eager to read more.

Maisie’s story begins in London in 1929, when she opens her office as a “psychologist and investigator.” She’s enormously advantaged—not because she’s born to the upper classes, like the roughly contemporaneous Lord Peter Wimsey—but because of her own pluck, hard work, and keen insight.

Her first client is a man who believes his wife’s strange behavior hides a possible dalliance. Maisie shadows the woman and uncovers something quite different behind her mysterious disappearances. Before she will reveal the wife’s sad secret, she makes sure the husband is prepared to act on her findings and thereby to relieve his wife’s distress.

Maisie’s insights have been cultivated by the celebrated detective Dr. Maurice Blanche. Raised the daughter of a costermonger, financial straits require her to enter service at a young age, and in a long section in the middle of the book, we learn how Maisie’s employer, Lady Rowan, discovers her reading the Lord’s library in the wee hours of the morning. Her intellectual gifts recognized, Maisie’s education is turned over to Lady Rowan’s friend, Dr. Blanche. Hard work subsequently gets her into university. Her academic career, if not her education, is interrupted by World War I, and she serves as an aid station nurse behind the front lines of France.

Now it’s 1929, and though the world powers have signed a peace treaty, for many Britons, the Great War is not over. Both the client’s mysterious wife and Lady Rowan’s own son—suffering from what was then called shell-shock and today we call PTSD—have links to a murky organization called The Retreat, which purports to give veterans who simply cannot live in society a safe haven. But is it what it says it is? By combining a clandestine investigation of The Retreat with Maisie’s strong emotional connection to the experiences of war, author Winspear has created a truly compelling story.

What sets the series apart from the norm is the interplay of psychological elements and Maisie’s strong empathy. Take, for example, the interesting notion drilled into her by Dr. Blanche that, when you pry a story or a confession out of someone, you need to recognize that “the story takes up space as a knot in a piece of wood. If the knot is removed, a hole remains. We must ask ourselves, how will this hole that we have opened be filled?” In other words, investigators’ responsibilities don’t end when they’ve wrung a confession out of someone.

The book is written in an easygoing style, and the details of daily life, manners, and attitudes seem to perfectly fit the post-war era in which it is set. Never stodgy, it moves along briskly, in part thanks to strong secondary characters. The occasional clashes in social strata keep things interesting, as dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey exploited so effectively. In Maisie, I’ve found a terrific new literary companion!

*****The Cossack

photo: Ivan Bandura, creative commons license

By KJ Lawrence – Though this debut espionage thriller kicks off with a murder in winter 2014, it’s not the usual intercontinental bloodbath. In fact, in a nice twist, the killer—a Russian hit man named Mikhail Petrov—is having serious second thoughts about his choice of career. He regrets the string of corpses he’s left in his wake, and is weighing the likelihood he could change occupations without himself becoming a victim of the SVR—the heir to the KGB. With the death that opens this book, at least he gets what he came for: a set of 18th century banking documents.

Mikhail is an ethnic Russian who grew up in the Ukraine, and his victim is a young Ukrainian named Ivan, working in London as an assistant to noted photographer Daniel Brooking. Ivan has disappeared, but it’s happened before, and Daniel is not too worried about it until he receives a visit from Ivan’s friend, British intelligence official Anthony Graves. Finding out what happened to Ivan becomes a truth mission for Daniel. All he has to go on are some documents relating to a mysterious financial transaction during the American Revolution.

Across town, Mikhail Petrov likewise studies the papers he stole from Ivan. Though Ivan had cleverly divided his resources, both sets of documents converge on one location, a bank headquartered in New London, Connecticut. Mikhail travels there, and finds Daniel a half-step ahead of him. In author Lawrence’s hands, the shifts between these two characters’ points of view work well. They’re well-rounded, believable, interesting, and temperamentally different from each other. Daniel may be the novel’s main character, but Mikhail is more sympathetic than you’d expect and has considerably more skills for dealing with the hazards this unlikely duo eventually confronts.

You can almost smell the dust on the half-forgotten legend they uncover concerning a fortune in gold. What could this far-fetched tale have to do with modern-day Ukraine? Why was Ivan killed for delving into it? A question that does not occur to Daniel, at least at first, is whether poking a stick at this particular bear puts him at risk too.

Lawrence creates a strong sense of urgency by interspersing a parallel story line involving Ukrainian protests against the Russian-supported government, which peaked in 2014, the time when this novel is set. Ivan’s sister Yana, a physician, is an active participant in Kiev’s independence movement and a witness to the violence perpetrated by the Ukrainian police. Yana is poking a bear, too, determined to put an end to the careers of the worst offenders. Although this thread of the story is thinner than the main tale, it provides a real-life grounding and urgency to Daniel and Mikhail’s activities continents away.

The Cossack is a fine debut, with Lawrence a compelling—and compassionate—author worth watching.

****They All Fall Down

caramelized sugar

photo: Serene Vannoy, creative commons license

By Tammy Cohen – Hannah is a new patient in a women’s low-security psychiatric facility called The Meadows outside London, the result of an incident Cohen takes some time to reveal.

In the several weeks before this psychological thriller opens, two of the facility’s dozen or so patients have committed suicide. In fact, the first line is, “Charlie cut her wrists last week with a shard of caramelized sugar.” Hannah doesn’t believe Charlie killed herself. She believes both of the so-called suicides were murder. But who will believe her?

Most of the short chapters are told in either Hannah’s first-person point of view or that of her mother Corinne, in third-person. Corinne isn’t sure what to make of Hannah’s accusations. She wants to believe her daughter, but Hannah’s done some strange things lately that weaken her credibility.

At the same time, Corinne is desperate to believe her daughter is safe at The Meadows. And the director, Dr. Oliver Roberts, and the art therapist, the supportive Laura, as well as most of the other staff seem capable and conscientious, don’t they? Are these people who they say they are? Their contention that their patients are high-risk, with histories of suicide attempts, never quite reassures her.

Author Cohen has assembled an interesting group of patients: Odelle, thin as a stick with serious eating disorders; Stella, whose otherworldly appearance results from too many cosmetic surgeries, including removal of a rib to achieve a smaller waistline; and Judith, who says she’s just being “honest” when she makes her intentionally cruel remarks. As events unfold and confidences are shared, these patients form a kind of lamenting Greek chorus.

The characters are mostly well developed; however, it was jarring when the patients’ ages would be mentioned. They were in their mid-thirties or so (Hannah is 32), but they came across like teenagers. Perhaps this is because they are highly dependent, vulnerable personalities.

Throw into the mix a lurking filmmaker and his cameraman working on a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary. The filmmakers were a nice touch (with the director Justin “doused in self-absorption like cheap cologne”), since an underlying theme of the book is perception. What does the “neutral” eye of the camera perceive? What do each of the characters perceive about each other, and do they trust each others’ perceptions—they certainly share doubts about Hannah’s—and does she even trust her own?

In general, the writing style is effective and the pace is good and varied. Cohen uses cliffhangers to keep you reading “one more chapter”—mysterious items and messages turn up in the hospital, a red baby hat on Corinne’s doorstep. Eventually these are all explained, but the repeated technique begins to feel artificial. On the whole, an intriguing psychological thriller.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Doyle and WildeBy Gyles Brandreth – London’s 1888 Whitechapel Murders have provided seemingly endless inspiration for authors’ speculation. Latest in this parade of theorists exploring the grisly deaths of five prostitutes is a former Conservative member of Britain’s Parliament, actor, and broadcaster who uses the real-life friendship between playwright Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle as his premise.

Six years after the Jack the Ripper murders, these two luminaries are brought into the investigation by another real-life character, Metropolitan Police CID Chief Constable Melville Macnaghten. Why them? Most of Macnaghten’s chief suspects are known to Wilde and, the detective says, “you are a poet, a Freemason and a man of the world. All useful qualifications for the business at hand.”

The police are resurrecting their failed investigation for several reasons. Because Macnaughten is writing a definitive report and would like to provide a conclusion. Because he wants to end speculation about the identity of the killer, which, in the absence of a convincing alternative, even occasionally extends to the late Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. And, because a new murder has occurred that bears all the hallmarks of a Ripper case, except that the body was found not in Whitechapel but in Chelsea. More particularly, in the alley behind Tite Street, where Wilde and Macnaghten have their homes.

Whether you fully buy into the plausibility of this notion, you cannot deny that it makes for an entertaining read, as Brandreth is able to draw on the wide and diverse acquaintanceships Wilde had among members of London society, high and low. He does a creditable job of eliminating Macnaghten’s weaker suspects—the suicide John Druitt, the spiritualist Walter Wellbeloved, and actor Richard Mansfield. He avails himself of opportunities to mention Wilde’s friend, the painter Walter Sickert, briefly considered a suspect in real life. (As evidence of the long half-life of Jack the Ripper theories, American mystery author Patricia Cornwell produced her second book attempting a case against him last February.) Brandreth then constructs a scenario in which the more unsavory suspects and some new players can cavort.

Brandreth has written six other mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde and his circle, sometimes including Doyle, and he knows his principal character and their London milieu well. If you’re familiar with Wilde’s plays, you’ll recognize various lines in the witty epigrams he’s constantly spouting. Brandreth liberally butters the narrative with other literary allusions as well. There’s even a character named Bunbury, and you know what happened to him.

As to the clever resolution and identification of “the real Jack,” this may not be so satisfactory. The motivation is weak and the method (which I cannot reveal as it would be a spoiler) is now discredited, though it was thought effective in the Victorian era. These issues, which would be serious in a contemporary crime thriller, are almost beside the point in this book. It’s a case of the journey being more important—and entertaining—than the destination.

Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

TV’s Charles III

Charles III

Tim Pigott-Smith in Charles III

Sunday night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater will present the Tony-nominated play, Charles III (trailer). Mike Bartlett wrote both the blank verse play and the adaptation. I saw it on Broadway—see my review for more details—and if the televersion is as good as the stage one, it will be well worth seeing. “Part political thriller, part family drama, and a timely examination of contemporary Britain,” says PBS.

In a nutshell, the Prince of Wales is finally able to ascend to the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest-serving monarch.Then the games begin, pitting the unpopular and lackluster Charles against the lively and ambitious Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton (played by Charlotte Riley). And Charles almost immediately starts making a hash of things by injecting himself in a vital policy debate.

In real life, of course, Charles’s succession is considered a dubious outcome of Elizabeth’s reign. Polls suggest that more than half of Britons actually would prefer he be skipped over entirely, putting William on the throne. William V, that would be.

In a her article “Most Likely to Succeed: Where Prince Charles Went Wrong,” New Yorker writer Zoë Heller talks about his persistent unpopularity. One source of it is that he puts his oar into waters about which he knows little, taking stances that “do not follow predictable political lines but seem perfectly calibrated to annoy everyone.”

An exceedingly promising aspect of the television presentation will be the carryover of West End and Broadway cast-members Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles (“the role of a lifetime,” London critics said), Oliver Chris as Prince William, Richard Goulding as Harry (“the ginger idiot”), and Margot Leicester, practically a body double for the galloping Camilla.

20th Century Women & The Sense of an Ending

20th Century Women

20th Century Women

Zumann, Gerwig, Bening, Fanning, l to r

Pity the poor teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in this film written and directed by Mike Mills and set in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s (trailer). He not only has a protective, chain-smoking single mother, Dorothea (played by Annette Bening), but she recruits his girl friend, one word, not two (Elle Fanning) and her boarder (Greta Gerwig) to help look out for him, to teach him “how to be a good man.”

Three moms could be a bit much, and is, but he is graceful under pressure, even when Gerwig inducts him into feminist thinking with Our Bodies, Our Selves. The resident handyman (Billy Crudup) could be a decent masculine role model, but he and Jamie just don’t connect.

The movie has a lot of cultural references to the 70s that may make you laugh or shake your head. A group of Dorothea’s friends sit around to listen to Jimmy Carter’s preachy bummer of a speech about the “crisis of confidence” among Americans and the need to get past rampant consumerism. This impolitic speech was reviled at the time (one of the characters says, “He is so f—–”)—and now sounds distressingly prescient.

The acting is A+, and “What is so special about Dorothea (and every character in the film) is that they aren’t ‘quirky’ in an annoying, independent film way,” says Sheila O’Malley for Rogerebert.com. They’re real people.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 88%; audiences: 75%.

The Sense of an Ending

Sense of an Ending

Rampling, Broadbent

Scriptwriter Nick Payne transformed Julian Barnes’s prize-winning novel into this movie (trailer) directed by Ritesh Batra about a self-absorbed Londoner and his growing obsession with a woman from his distant past. It appears he’d much rather be living there, with the frisson of youth and the sixties—than in his current divorced, not especially accomplished, late-middle-age state.

Tony Webster (played superbly by James Broadbent) becomes a voyeuristic observer of the life that might have been. He receives an unexpected letter from his former girlfriend’s mother telling him she’s bequeathed him the diary of his youthful best friend—the best friend who stole the girlfriend from him.

It’s an odd thing, but he becomes determined to get that diary, while the ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) is determined he not have it. The conflict sparks many nostalgic reminiscences about those days. It transpires that events were shatteringly different from how he has understood them all along.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife (Harriet Walter, who is in everything lately) is onto him, and his daughter (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) is about to yank him back into the present by producing a grandchild.

Again, the cast is terrific, even if Webster himself is annoyingly oblivious, and the source material is strong. I have not read the book, but apparently Julian Barnes told the filmmakers not to be constrained by his text: “Throw the book against the wall,” he said. The critics seem to think they followed that advice rather too well.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 70%; audiences: 59%.

*****The Lesser Bohemians

london-theater

photo: Andy Roberts, creative commons license

By Eimear McBride — You’ll have trouble with this book. I did. About page 40, I wondered, “is she ever going to write in complete sentences?” About page 90, I thought, “is it ever going to be about anything but sex?” The answer to both these questions was “almost never.” But The Lesser Bohemians is much more than a literary 50 Shades. And I’m glad I didn’t give up on it.

Ireland native McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize and many, many other accolades for her 2013 book, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and when I saw she’d written another one, I jumped at the chance to read it.

In Bohemians, released last month, an 18-year-old Irish girl—a drama student in London—meets  meets an older man, a handsome actor near 40. She isn’t a virgin much longer. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of cigarettes, a lot of alcohol. We don’t even learn these characters’ names until very far along. He’s Stephen, he calls her Eily. Her full name, her real name, Eílís, is used only once, two pages from the end, when their identity is finally clear to each other and themselves, perhaps. Their urgent and scouring intimacy is McBride’s way of flaying any falseness from the characters and laying them (literally) bare.

The story approaches somewhat closer to a conventional first-person narrative (sentences!) in the second half, in a long section in which Stephen tells her about his past, a true heart-breaker there. Most of it is written in almost a stream-of-consciousness way, and McBride is often compared to James Joyce for that reason. Conversations are presented in long paragraphs, uninterrupted by such reader-aids as quotation marks, but once I got into it, I didn’t have much trouble following.

Emphasizing the difficulty of it risks underpraising how mesmerizing it is. McBride’s approach forces you to slow down and really absorb what’s being said, as she fractures the rules of punctuation and grammar. As NPR reviewer Annalisa Quinn said, “By sacrificing grammatical precision she gets emotional and psychological sense—even as those things are in themselves impossibly and inherently imprecise, like light or color.” Or love, I’d add.  A sample:

On that said Saturday, she (Eily’s friend) helps me move into the (friend’s ex-boyfriend’s) flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The I hope you’re proud of yourself, ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road. I think I’ll blank him, she decides. Fair enough, I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up. I pity you, he’s such an–. Keep it down, I live here now. I bet he shags you before the term is out. I wouldn’t.

Conventionally, this would be handled something like this:

On that said Saturday, she helps me move into the flat. Tired white walls. No curtains or blinds. But perfect. Landlady free. The “I hope you’re proud of yourself,” ringing in my ears and lug my stuff from the Safeway’s trolley I nicked and pushed down to Patshull Road.
“I think I’ll blank him,” she decides.
“Fair enough,” I say, blu-tacking Betty Blue up.
“I pity you, he’s such an–.”
“Keep it down, I live here now.”
“I bet he shags you before the term is out.”
“I wouldn’t.”

The Lesser Bohemians is an unforgettable book about two characters I came to really care about. I can picture their lives and prospects and I appreciate an author who doesn’t believe she has to make my job as a reader too easy.

Red Velvet – Weekend Theater Treat!

Red Velvet cast

Lindsay Smiling & Sofia Jean Gomez

Hop on New Jersey Transit’s Morristown line or jump into your car and speed out to Madison to see Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Red Velvet, on stage through September 25. It’s a knockout! Directed here by STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, Red Velvet was the breakout success for London playwright Lolita Chakrabarti in 2012, was nominated for numerous awards, and garnered two “Best New Playwright” awards for the author.

Based on a true story, Red Velvet describes the career of Ira Aldridge (played by Lindsay Smiling), an African-American actor who relocated to Europe in search of artistic and personal freedom. In 1833, he was invited to play the title role in Othello at London’s Theatre Royal Covent Garden. While audiences loved him, the critics were merciless, and he never played London again.

Actor Charles Kean (David Andrew Macdonald) refuses to perform with Aldridge and derides his more natural, emotionally true, and modern acting style. Charles’s fiancée, Ellen Tree (Victoria Mack), understands and immediately adopts Aldridge’s approach. The play’s first act contains highly entertaining scenes in which the Aldridge style is contrasted with the affected, melodramatic style then in vogue, concluding with a key bit from Othello that demonstrates his technique’s tremendous power.

In the second act, the devastating reviews are in, and the conflict between Aldridge and his friend Pierre (David Foubert), who manages the company, comes to a dramatic, wrenching climax. Aldridge won’t temper his performance and the critics (and theatre backers) won’t countenance it. Chakrabarti has said the play is about personal fulfillment in the theater (never guaranteed), disillusionment, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. It is, and all within an invigorating package.

The Covent Garden debacle takes place against the backdrop of England’s raging abolition debate. Red Velvet’s younger characters think slavery abhorrent; the older ones that cheap labor is the foundation of British prosperity. Further, though Aldridge and the younger actors believe “all theater is essentially political,” the others believe casting a black actor as Othello is going too far. Chakrabarti does not turn the play into a polemic, but provides useful context.

In real life, after the Covent Garden debacle, Aldridge became a much- admired tragedian and toured Europe extensively. Thus, Red Velvet begins and ends in a theater dressing-room in Łódź, Poland, in 1867, as a 60-year-old Aldridge prepares to play King Lear—in whiteface. Invading his privacy, a young Polish journalist (Sofia Jean Gomez) is determined to interview him; she makes the same plea for acceptance he might have made in earlier times. At one point, he caresses the red backdrop, musing that the velvet is like a “deep promise of what is to come.”

The cast members noted above were uniformly strong and received good support from Garrett Lawson, John Little, Shannon Harris, and Savannah DesOrmeaux.

STNJ provides an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

The Night Manager

Tom Hiddleston, The Night ManagerHere at Tom Hiddleston Central this week, we’ve not only seen the Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light, but on Tuesday at 10 pm, AMC began its six-part series starring Hiddleston in John Le Carré’s, The Night Manager. The tv show is punctuated by Jaguar ads [DO watch!] starring a Hiddleston who looks awfully like a shoe-in for that rumored James Bond role. (But should he want it? Possibly not.)

Having seen episode 1 of The Night Manager, I eagerly look forward to more. The conceit is that Hiddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, works as the night manager in upscale hotels—in the updated AMC version, in Cairo during the Arab spring, then in Switzerland—with ample motive to bring down a British arms merchant (Hugh Lorrie), “the worst man in the world,” who tends to stay in such posh places. A delightful surprise is Olivia Colman (she is police detective Ellie Miller in the UK mystery series Broadchurch) as head of an obscure London arms control agency.

Le Carré’s original, published 23 years ago, also began in Cairo in a much less turbulent era, though the double-dealing and “whom can you trust?” elements created excruciating tension in both the book (which I read ages ago) and now in the AMC version, which has a fresh new, LeCarré-approved ending. Says Judith Warner in the New York Times, the new version is “deeply appealing, and in substance and style, for this viewer at least, moved the book forward in a number of fortuitous ways.” For this viewer too. Loved it!