Book Review – THE MUGGER (1956) by Ed McBain

THE MUGGER (1956) ***½
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 160pp (152pp)
First published by Perma in 1956 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1956
ISBN: 978-0-140-01969-8
Blurb: He preys on women, waiting in the darkness…then comes from behind, attacks them, and snatches their purses. He tells them not to scream and as they’re on the ground, reeling with pain and fear, he bows and nonchalantly says, “Clifford thanks you, madam.” But when he puts one victim in the hospital and the next in the morgue, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are not amused and will stop at nothing to bring him to justice. Dashing young patrolman Bert Kling is always there to help a friend. And when a friend’s sister-in-law is the mugger’s murder victim, Bert’s personal reasons to find the maniacal killer soon become a burning obsession…and it could easily get him killed.
Comment: The second of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books followed hot on the heels of Cop Hater and is similarly assured. This time the detectives are investigating a series of muggings which seem to be linked to the murder of 17-year-old Jeannie Page. The pace is quick and the dialogue snappy making for a fast an entertaining read. Having focused on Steve Carella in the first book, the second is geared around detective Hal Willis, patrolman Bert Kling and decoy Eileen Burke – Carella being absent on honeymoon following his wedding at the end of the first book. This gives McBain the opportunity to expand the cast of characters within the precinct. Kling becomes the core focus as he is asked by an old friend to assist with moody sister-in-law, Jeannie, who later turns up murdered – the apparent latest victim of a serial mugger going by the name of Clifford. The two plots are resolved rather quickly and and partly through happenstance – something McBain was keen to impress on his readers was that not all cases are solved through detection alone, luck is also a key element. This sets McBain apart from many of his peers who look to impress the readers with the intellect of their detective heroes. McBain is happy to show his detectives as fallible human beings who follow a process and are as likely to make mistakes as they are to skilfully unravel the mysteries they are presented with.  McBain also explores the personal lives of his key characters – this time the focus is Kling and his burgeoning romance with student Claire Townsend. The Mugger repeats the successful formula of Cop Hater and concludes with Kling’s promotion to the detective division and Carella’s return from honeymoon. McBain was in prolific form and would produce his third 87th Precinct book to be published in the same year – The Pusher.

Book Review – COP HATER (1956) by Ed McBain

COP HATER (1956) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 176pp (171pp)
First published by Perma in 1956 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1956
ISBN: 978-0-140-01968-1
Blurb: As a cop with the city’s famed 87th Precinct, Steve Carella has seen it all. Or so he thinks. Because nothing can prepare him for the sight that greets him on a sweltering July night: fellow detective Mike Reardon’s dead body splayed across the sidewalk, his face blown away by a .45. Days later, Reardon’s partner is found dead, a .45-caliber bullet buried deep in his chest. Only a fool would call it a coincidence, and Carella’s no fool. He chalks the whole ugly mess up to a grudge killing…until a third murder shoots that theory to hell. Armed with only a single clue, Carella delves deep into the city’s underbelly, launching a grim search for answers that will lead him from a notorious brothel to the lair of a beautiful, dangerous widow. He won’t stop until he finds the truth—or until the next bullet finds him.
Comment: Along with Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft books, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels were the first adult books and crime fiction I ever read. I initially read them in retrospect and out of sequence and then bought the series with each new publication from Ice (1983) onward. Cop Hater was the first book in the series, published back in 1956, and re-reading it now it is obvious to see the influence the book not only had on crime fiction, but also TV police procedurals. McBain would establish himself as a master of the format over the next 49 years with 55 books in the series. Isola was a fictional city, but in reality it was a thinly disguised depiction of New York, its geography rotated on its access and its boroughs renamed. McBain prided himself on the detail to which he captured the procedure of police detection and there is much detail in this debut book to that effect. That does not mean to say the book is bogged down by minutiae. Far from it. The book is as efficient as they come, McBain having been schooled in pulp fiction. His natural use of dialogue, including the witty banter, was to become McBain’s key calling card along with his intricate plotting and ability to create believable characters. The plot here concerns a series of killings of detectives from the 87th Precinct with seemingly no motive. McBain highlights the process his detectives go through in following leads until they come to a dead end or to the killer. Steve Carella takes the lead here, as he would do in many of books in the series. We also get to see the detectives’ home and social lives making their characters fully rounded and human. McBain would keep the series at a consistently high standard throughout, which is incredible given the volume of books he wrote. Cop Hater may not be among the very best, but it does demonstrate many of the traits that would make the series so popular and as such holds an important place in crime literature history.

Book review – FOREVER AND A DAY (2018) by Anthony Horowitz

FOREVER AND A DAY (2018) ***½
by Anthony Horowitz 
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2019, 304pp (283pp)
First published by Jonathan Cape in 2018
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. and The Ian Fleming Estate, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-784-70638-8
Blurb: A British agent floats in the waters of the French Riviera, murdered by an unknown hand. Determined to uncover the truth, James Bond enters a world of fast cars, grand casinos and luxury yachts. But beneath the glamour, he soon encounters a dangerous network of organised crime. It’s time for Bond to earn his licence to kill. He must find those responsible and unravel their devastating plan – before he becomes their next victim…
Comment: This latest continuation James Bond novel sees Horowitz return after his modest effort on Trigger Mortis. Here he decides to set his story as a prequel to Fleming’s Casino Royale, establishing Bond’s appointment to the double-o section and his first mission. The mission sees Bond travel to Marseilles to look into the death of his predecessor, who was investigating a local gangster. There is much exposition and time is taken on giving depth to the major characters in the story – notably the enigmatic Madame Sixtine, with whom Bond forms an alliance and an emotional attachment. The villains are the multi-millionaire Irwin Wolfe, who produces film stock and the slimy Jean-Paul Scipio – a Corsican gangster. The pace is a little laboured with the odd interjection of action until the finale aboard Wolfe’s steamer, which gives the novel an exciting finish along with a coda that wraps the story up nicely. Not many surprises but fans of 007 will likely enjoy this addition to the Bond library.

Film Review – SERENITY (2005)

SERENITY (2005, USA) ****
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Thriller
dist. Universal Pictures; pr co. Universal Pictures / Barry Mendel Productions; d. Joss Whedon; w. Joss Whedon; pr. Barry Mendel; ph. Jack N. Green (Colour. 35 mm (anamorphic) (Kodak Vision 2383), Digital (Texas Instruments DLP 1280 x 1024, 1.9 : 1 anamorphic). Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Super 35 (source format). 2.35:1); m. David Newman; ed. Lisa Lassek; pd. Barry Chusid; ad. Daniel T. Dorrance; rel. 22 August 2005 (UK), 22 September 2005 (USA); BBFC cert: 15; r/t. 119m.
cast: Nathan Fillion (Mal), Gina Torres (Zoë), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Sean Maher (Simon), Summer Glau (River), Ron Glass (Shepherd Book), Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Operative), David Krumholtz (Mr. Universe), Michael Hitchcock (Dr. Mathias), Sarah Paulson (Dr. Caron), Yan Feldman (Mingo), Rafael Feldman (Fanty), Nectar Rose (Lenore), Tamara Taylor (Teacher), Glenn Howerton (Lilac Young Tough), Hunter Ansley Wryn (Young River).
A group of rebels led by war veteran Malcolm Reynolds (Fillion) travels the outskirts of space aboard their ship, Serenity, outside the reach of the Alliance, a sinister regime that controls most of the universe. After the crew takes in Simon (Maher) and his psychic sister, River (Glau), whom he has just rescued from Alliance forces, they find themselves being pursued by the Operative (Ejiofor), an Alliance agent who will stop at nothing to find them. The events of the film take place six months after the last episode of the Firefly (2002) TV series, which was cancelled prematurely by the network despite its loyal fan base. Here, Whedon attempts to tie-up some of the loose threads that resulted from the series being dropped. Whilst the movie may require its audience to be familiar with the series, there is still much to enjoy for newcomers. The action is ramped up and there is the witty character interaction that endeared the TV show to its audience leaving sufficient of the series’ spirit on show to make this a success. All the regulars return and there are shocks and surprises along the way. Whedon’s direction is fast-paced and the cast hit the ground running. It’s a shame the movie did not earn sufficient box office to warrant extending the franchise.

Film Review – SUSPICION (1941)

SUSPICION (1941, USA) ****
Mystery, Thriller
dist. RKO Radio Pictures; pr co. RKO Radio Pictures; d. Alfred Hitchcock; w. Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville (based on the novel “Before the Fact” by Anthony Berkeley (as Francis Iles)); pr. Harry E. Edington; ph. Harry Stradling (B&W. 35mm. Spherical. 1.37:1); m. Franz Waxman; ed. William Hamilton; ad. Van Nest Polglase; rel. 9 November 1941 (USA), December 1941 (UK); BBFC cert: PG; r/t. 99m.
cast: Cary Grant (Johnnie), Joan Fontaine (Lina), Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlaw), Nigel Bruce (Beaky), May Whitty (Mrs. McLaidlaw), Isabel Jeans (Mrs. Newsham), Heather Angel (Ethel [Maid]), Auriol Lee (Isobel Sedbusk), Reginald Sheffield (Reggie Wetherby), Leo G. Carroll (Captain Melbeck).
Grant plays the charming scoundrel Johnnie Aysgarth and woos the wealthy but plain Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine), who elopes with him despite the warnings of her disapproving father (Hardwicke). After their marriage, Johnnie’s risky financial ventures cause Lina to suspect he’s becoming involved in unscrupulous dealings. When his dear friend and business partner, Beaky (Bruce), dies under suspicious circumstances on a business trip, she fears her husband might kill her for her inheritance. Hitchcock deftly manages the light and dark tones of the story, as does Waxman’s score and Stradling’s photography. Grant is perfect for his role and convincing in portraying the ambiguity of the character. Fontaine’s performance may seem mannered today, but it was enough to win her a best actress Oscar. A good support cast is headed by the stern Hardwicke and the bumbling Bruce. Lee also scores as an Agatha Christie-styled mystery writer. The film builds in suspense toward its rushed climax, which the studio notoriously interfered in. Remade as a TV Movie in 1987.
AA: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Joan Fontaine)
AAN: Best Picture; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Franz Waxman)

Book Review – COLONEL SUN (1968) by Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham)

COLONEL SUN (1968) ***½
by Kingsley Amis (writing as Robert Markham)
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 344pp (317pp)
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1966
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1968
Introduction by Kingsley Amis (5pp)
ISBN: 978-1-784-87145-1
Blurb: Lunch at Scott’s, a quiet game of golf, a routine social call on his chief M, convalescing in his Regency house in Berkshire – the life of secret agent James Bond has begun to fall into a pattern that threatens complacency … until the sunny afternoon when M is kidnapped and his house staff savagely murdered. The action ricochets across the globe to a volcanic Greek island where the glacial, malign Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the People’s Liberation Army of China collaborates with an ex-nazi atrocity expert in a world-menacing conspiracy. Stripped of all professional aids, Bond faces unarmed the monstrous devices of Colonel Sun in a test that brings him to the verge of his physical endurance.
Comment: This is the first continuation James Bond novel commissioned by Ian Fleming’s estate. Amis, a respected author in his own right (Lucky Jim, The Green Man, etc.), was a friend of Fleming’s and a fan of the series. He had written two books about the series – The James Bond Dossier and The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007 (using the pseudonym of M’s chief-of-staff, Lt-Col William (‘Bill’) Tanner). He was therefore a logical choice to continue the series. The book is very well written and provides a scenario which tests Bond to his physical limits. The torture scene in the book’s final act is more sadistic and unpleasant than anything Fleming conjured up. The Greek setting gives the tale a fresh feel too, but somehow lacks Fleming’s sense of place. The plot is simple in that M is kidnapped by the Chinese psychotic, Colonel Sun Liang-tan, who is supported by a former Nazi in a scheme to unsettle the international community by obliterating a Russian conference and leaving the bodies of M and Bond as framed culprits. Bond works with the Russians, in the form of female agent Ariadne Alexandrou with whom he becomes romantically involved, to track down Sun’s lair and rescue M. The action scenes are well-staged and Amis remains true to Fleming’s format and characterisations. Amis has Bond rely on his resilience and physical strength, rather than gimmicks, to overcome the odds. There is little in the way of back-reference to the events in the Fleming novels, so the story holds up well as a standalone. Ultimately, it makes for a solid thriller that would have sat within the mid-range of Fleming’s series.

Film Review – YESTERDAY (2019)

YESTERDAY (2019, UK) ***
Romance, Music, Fantasy
dist. Universal Pictures; pr co. Etalon Film / Working Title Films; d. Danny Boyle; w. Richard Curtis (based on a story by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth); pr. Bernard Bellew, Tim Bevan, Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis, Eric Fellner, Matthew James Wilkinson; ph. Christopher Ross (Colour. D-Cinema (Digital Cinema Package DCP) (also Dolby Atmos version), DCP (CGS version) (also Dolby Atmos version), DCP (Dolby Vision + Atmos). CGS (CGS version),Digital Intermediate, Digital Intermediate (4K) (master format), Dolby Vision, Redcode RAW (8K) (source format). 2.39:1); m. Daniel Pemberton; ed. Jon Harris; pd. Patrick Rolfe, Moin Uddin; ad. James Wakefield; rel. 4 May 2019 (USA), 20 June 2019 (UK); BBFC cert: 12; r/t. 116m.
cast: Himesh Patel (Jack Malik), Lily James (Ellie Appleton), Joel Fry (Rocky), Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran), Kate McKinnon (Debra Hammer), Sanjeev Bhaskar (Jed Malik), Meera Syal (Sheila Malik), Harry Michell (Nick), Sophia Di Martino (Carol), Ellise Chappell (Lucy), Justin Edwards (Leo (Russian Stranger)), Sarah Lancashire (Liz (Liverpool Stranger)), Alexander Arnold (Gavin), Lamorne Morris (Head of Marketing), Vincent Franklin (Brian), Karl Theobald (Terry), Camilla Rutherford (Hilary), Michael Kiwanuka (Michael Kiwanuka), James Corden (James Corden), Robert Carlyle (John Lennon (uncredited)).
Patel gives a winning performance as a struggling musician who is involved in a road accident and wakes up to find no-one has heard of The Beatles. Seeing his opportunity, he uses their songs to bring him success but along the way reconciles his newfound stardom with the loss of his keenest supporter from prior to the accident (James). This is Richard Curtis by-the-numbers, but despite its predictability and lack of depth there is much to like. Patel’s self-effacing and unlikely musician is a character the audience can care about as is James as his childhood sweetheart. Sheeran is game in a large support role and McKinnon is the epitome of corporate greed. Where Curtis misses the mark as a writer is in his lack of willingness to explore the frankly manipulative premise to its fullest potential, making it feel like the gimmick it is to hang familiar romcom tropes from. Boyle directs anonymously and lets the characters breathe and the feelgood factor is high. The songs are ultimately what we remember the most and they are, of course, outstanding.

Book Review – OCTOPUSSY AND THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1966) by Ian Fleming

OCTOPUSSY AND THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1966) ***
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 126pp
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1966
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966
Introduction by Sam Leith (10pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57702-7
Short Stories:
Octopussy (1965, 46pp) ***
The Property of a Lady (1963, 34pp) **½
The Living Daylights (1962, 34pp) ****
007 in New York (1963, 8pp) **
Blurb: ‘This was going to be bad news, dirty work. This was to be murder’. Four classic moments in the life of a spy. From avenging the wartime murder of a friend to sniper duty on the East-West Berlin border, James Bond’s body, mind and spirit are tested to their limits.
Comment: This is the fourteenth and last of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books to be published, and the second posthumously. The book collects four short stories of varying quality. The two weaker stories – “Property of a Lady” and “007 in New York” were commissioned pieces of work. The former by auction house Sotheby’s for their journal The Ivory Hammer and the latter for the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. Neither story has anything of real interest. “007 in New York” is a brief episode describing Bond’s arrival in the city to warn a former British agent that her boyfriend works for the opposition. Its only claim is the written recipe of Scrambled Eggs James Bond. “Property of a Lady” describes Russian underhandedness at an auction of Faberge jewellery. The story has little to offer, other than some insight into auction etiquette. “Octopussy”, originally published posthumously in the Daily Express, is an interesting story of honour with Bond having tracked down Colonel Dexter-Smythe, who, following WWII, murdered a guide in the Swiss mountains as he tracked down some Nazi gold bullion. The guide also happened to be Bond’s former ski instructor from his youth. Bond allows Dexter-Smyth the honourable way out. The story is well written blending the flashback of the discovery of the gold with the present in which Dexter-Smythe is a sad recluse. There is a neat resolution as Dexter-Smythe, awaiting his eventual arrest, is stung by a scorpion fish and devoured by his own pet octopus. Was it accident or suicide? The best of the bunch is “The Living Daylights”, written for The Sunday Times colour supplement. It is set in Berlin where Bond is on a mission to assassinate a sniper out to shoot a defector as he attempts from East to West. When Bond realises the sniper is a woman he spares her life, but destroys her weapon allowing the defector to make his escape. Bond is chastised by his fellow agent for disobeying orders and putting the mission at risk. The story is excitingly written and just the right length. Bond sticks to his principles and we get to better understand how his attitude toward his job. So, a mixed bag, but still much to enjoy.

Book Review – THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1965) by Ian Fleming

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1965) **½
by Ian Fleming
This paperback edition published by Vintage, 2012, 238pp (214pp)
First published by Jonathan Cape in 1965
© Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., 1965
Introduction by William Boyd (8pp)
ISBN: 978-0-099-57699-0
Blurb: ‘Mister, there’s something quite extra about the smell of death. Care to try it?’ After a year missing in action, Bond is back…brainwashed by the KGB and on a mission to assassinate M. To prove his worth to the Service, he must hunt down and eliminate his fiercest opponent yet: “Pistols” Scaramanga – “The Man With The Golden Gun”.
Comment: Fleming’s final full-length James Bond novel (a collection of short stories followed) was the first published after his death. Hampered by a standard Bond vs. Gangsters plot, reminiscent of Live and Let Die (both share the Jamaica setting) and Diamonds Are Forever (both deal with an organised crime syndicate), this lacks the lavish excesses of Fleming’s later work. The plot is a simple mission for Bond to target and assassinate Francisco Scaramanga, a deadly assassin for hire who uses a golden pistol. There are few surprises along the way, although the finale is reasonably exciting. Disappointing too is the swift way in which the cliffhanger we were left with at the conclusion of You Only Live Twice is resolved here. The manuscript was still in edit when Fleming died meaning further polish and potential expansion, that may have improved the book, was not possible and the result is a rough and ready Bond novel that is perhaps the weakest of the series.

Film Review – THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979)

THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979, USA) ****
Drama, Thriller
dist. Columbia Pictures (USA), Columbia-EMI-Warner (UK); pr co. Columbia Pictures / IPC Films; d. James Bridges; w. Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, James Bridges; pr. Michael Douglas; ph. James Crabe (Metrocolor. 35mm. Spherical. 1.85:1); ed. David Rawlins; pd. George Jenkins; rel. 6 March 1979 (USA), 20 July 1979 (UK); BBFC cert: PG; r/t. 122m.
cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman De Young), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Don Jacovich), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack), Daniel Valdez (Hector Salas), Stan Bohrman (Pete Martin), James Karen (Mac Churchill), Michael Alaimo (Greg Minor), Donald Hotton (Dr. Lowell), Khalilah ‘Belinda’ Ali (Marge (as Khalilah Ali)), Paul Larson (D.B. Royce), Ron Lombard (Barney), Tom Eure (Tommy), Nick Pellegrino (Borden), Daniel Lewk (Donny), Allan Chinn (Holt).
Fonda plays a TV reporter who, with her cameraman (Douglas), finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant. Lemmon is the plant’s senior technician who looks to spill the beans, whilst the corporates try to silence him. This absorbing cautionary tale of the dangers of nuclear power plants benefits from an excellent script that balances its message with character motivation. It is aided by three excellent central performances – notably Lemmon who wrestles with his conscience as he uncovers shortcuts taken in safety checks – and a superb support cast. Whilst the drama may veer toward melodramatic thrills in its final act, the film’s message has an impact that is undeniable.
AAN: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Lemmon); Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jane Fonda); Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, James Bridges); Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (George Jenkins, Arthur Jeph Parker)