Book Review – MURDER, D.C. by Neely Tucker (2015)

MURDER, D.C. by NEELY TUCKER (Windmill, 2015, 294pp) ∗∗∗½
     Blurb: When Billy Ellison, the son of Washington, D.C.’s most influential African-American family, is found dead in the Potomac near a violent drug haven, veteran metro reporter Sully Carter knows it’s time to start asking some serious questions―no matter what the consequences. With the police unable to find a lead and pressure mounting for Sully to abandon the investigation, he has a hunch that there is more to the case than a drug deal gone bad or a tale of family misfortune. Digging deeper, Sully finds that the real story stretches far beyond Billy and into D.C.’s most prominent social circles. An alcoholic still haunted from his years as a war correspondent in Bosnia, Sully now must strike a dangerous balance between D.C.’s two extremes―the city’s violent, desperate back streets and its highest corridors of power―while threatened by those who will stop at nothing to keep him from discovering the shocking truth.

This is Neely Tucker’s second novel to feature Washington reporter, Sully Carter. Carter is an ex-war correspondent used to the horrors of violence now working on the mean streets of the capital. I hadn’t read the first in the series, The Ways of the Dead, but this did not matter as the plot here is standalone and there is little reference to the earlier novel. Tucker is a reporter himself, working at The Washington Post, and his experience and knowledge of the industry comes through strongly. The page count is refreshingly concise containing an intriguing mystery, which unfolds efficiently and gathers pace in its closing chapters. Tucker has a good sense of dialogue and street culture and his characters largely seem real.

The themes of corporate greed and hidden family secrets are not new to the genre and the character of Sheldon Stevens in particular riffs many similar characters in other novels and films of the past. Tucker doesn’t even necessarily make Sully Carter a likeable hero. Carter is driven to get the story and is not distracted by the consequences of his actions – resolute that he is right all along. His years as a correspondent in war-torn countries have also seemingly de-sensitised him to the horrors he encounters. He uses the criminal underworld and the cops to his own advantage and yet there is a strong sense of justice that lies beneath his skin and this comes to the fore as he discovers the secrets that unravel the mystery surrounding Billy Ellison’s death.

Murder, D.C. then is an enjoyable mystery with an unconventional hero and is well edited, avoiding the padding that many books in the genre increasingly suffer from.

Book Review – THE FORSAKEN by Ace Atkins (2014)

THE FORSAKEN by ACE ATKINS (Corsair, 2014, 370pp) ∗∗∗½
     Blurb: Thirty-six years ago, a nameless black man wandered into Jericho, Mississippi, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a pair of paratrooper boots. Less than two days later, he was accused of rape and murder, hunted down by a self-appointed posse, and lynched. Now evidence has surfaced of his innocence, and county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out not only to identify the stranger’s remains, but to charge those responsible for the lynching. As he starts to uncover old lies and dirty secrets, though, he runs up against fierce opposition from those with the most to lose – and they can play dirty themselves. Soon Colson will find himself accused of terrible crimes, and the worst part is, the accusations just might stick. As the two investigations come to a head, it is anybody’s guess who will prevail – or even come out of it alive.
     The Forsaken is Atkins’ fourth Quinn Colson book and is possibly the strongest in a series that just keeps getting better. The “old case” plot enables the author to examine Quinn Colson’s relationship with his father, who is involved in the case. In this book Atkins has gotten under the skin of his lead character more than any in the series since the debut The Ranger. The subject matter concerning the rape of a young teenager and the racist attitudes that prevailed in the 1970s is scrutinised through a 21st century lens, but Colson finds that old prejudices die hard. The emphasis on modern-day themes of corruption, greed and power provide an interesting contrast showing the human condition dictates there will always be moral battles to fight.
The book is well paced and the dialogue is witty and tough. There is less action  here than in the earlier books, but this gives the characters room to breathe with Atkins allowing time for each major protagonist. The finale is a slight disappointment in that it does not fully resolve all the issues presented, but with more books to follow Atkins is asking readers to invest in his world and it is certainly one worth revisiting.

Film Review – MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993)

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993; USA; Technicolor; 104m) ∗∗∗½  d. Woody Allen; w. Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman; ph. Carlo Di Palma.  Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen, Ron Rifkin, Ira Wheeler, Joy Behar, William Addy. A middle-aged couple suspects foul play when their neighbour’s wife suddenly drops dead. Witty mystery with a top-class cast. Hand-held camera work and Woody’s trademark naturalistic approach to dialogue helps create some tension, but its Allen’s one-liners and Keaton’s scatty characterisation that are the real pull here. Alda’s lonely playwright and Huston’s confident novelist also score. [PG]

Film Review – MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974; UK; Technicolor; 131m) ∗∗∗  d. Sidney Lumet; w. Paul Dehn; ph. Geoffrey Unsworth; m. Richard Rodney Bennett.  Cast: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, George Coulouris, Denis Quilley, Vernon Dobtcheff, Jeremy Lloyd, John Moffat. In 1935, when his train is stopped by deep snow, detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) is called on to solve a murder that occurred in his car the night before. Strong cast is the main interest in this otherwise standard Agatha Christie mystery, to which the solution becomes very clear too soon. Finney is excellent as Poirot and the script has some lovely humorous touches. Bergman won her third Oscar as a Swedish missionary. Finney, the elegant cinematography and costume design were also nominated for Academy Awards. Twice remade for TV – in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot and again in 2010 as part of ITVs Poirot series with David Suchet. Followed by DEATH ON THE NILE (1978). [PG]

Film Review – MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)

Murder, My Sweet (1944; USA; B&W; 95m) ∗∗∗∗½  d. Edward Dmytryk; w. John Paxton; ph. Harry J. Wild; m. Roy Webb.  Cast: Dick Powell, Anne Shirley, Mike Mazurki, Claire Trevor, Otto Kruger, Miles Mander, Douglas Walton, Donald Douglas, Ralf Harolde, Esther Howard, Jack Carr, Ralph Dunn, George Anderson, Paul Phillips, Larry Wheat. After being hired to find an ex-con’s former girlfriend, Philip Marlowe is drawn into a deeply complex web of mystery and deceit. Densely plotted and stylishly filmed mystery with Powell making a strong impression as a pre-Bogart Philip Marlowe. Proved to be hugely influential on the film noir genre with its use of voiceover, night-time settings, adventurous framing, seedy characters and hardboiled dialogue. Based on the novel “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler, the title used for its UK release. Filmed previously as THE FALCON TAKES OVER (1942) and remade as FAREWELL, MY LOVELY in 1975. [PG]

Film Review – HOLLYWOODLAND (2006)

Hollywoodland (2006; USA; Technicolor; 126m) ∗∗∗½  d. Allen Coulter; w. Paul Bernbaum; ph. Jonathan Freeman; m. Marcelo Zarvos.  Cast: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney, Joe Spano, Molly Parker, Kathleen Robertson, Lois Smith, Phillip MacKenzie, Larry Cedar, Eric Kaldor, Caroline Dhavernas, Zach Mills. Inspired by one of Hollywood’s most infamous real-life mysteries, follows a 1950’s private detective who, investigating the mysterious death of “Superman” star George Reeves, uncovers unexpected connections to his own life as the case turns ever more personal. The torrid affair Reeves had with the wife of a studio executive might hold the key to the truth. More a comment on fame and stardom than a murder mystery. It weaves between the lives of the star and the detective investigating his supposed suicide and in doing so often disturbs the flow of the story, but the performances are uniformly excellent and the subject matter is genuinely fascinating. Feature film debut for veteran TV director Coulter. [15]

Book Review – SET IN DARKNESS (2000) by Ian Rankin

SET IN DARKNESS by IAN RANKIN (2000, Orion, Paperback, 466pp) ∗∗∗∗
      Blurb: Edinburgh is about to become the home of the first Scottish parliament in 300 years. As political passions run high, DI John Rebus is charged with liaison, thanks to the new parliament being resident in Queensbury House, bang in the middle of his patch. But Queensbury House has its own, dark past. Legend has it that a young man was roasted there on a spit by a madman. When the fireplace where the youth died is uncovered another more recent murder victim is found. Days later, in the gardens outside, there is another body and Rebus is under pressure to find instant answers. As the case proceeds, the Inspector finds himself face to face with one of Edinburgh’s most notorious criminals...

The eleventh book in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series is an engrossing mystery, which weaves its various plot threads with masterly precision. Whilst the book starts slowly it allows time for Rankin to introduce his characters. The mysteries surrounding a politician’s murder, a 20-year old corpse and a serial rapist who targets singles clubs dovetail into a satisfying thriller in which Rebus’ unconventional methods continue to annoy his superiors. Then, we discover Rebus’ nemesis and Edinburgh’s Mr Big – Big Ger Cafferty – has been released from prison having been diagnosed with cancer. This sets up a tense head to head between Rebus and Cafferty which adds additional edge to the second half of the book. Rankin brings all these elements to the boil brilliantly and the finale is ironic, brutal and shocking and leaves the reader wanting more.

The Rebus series runs to 20 novels. I’ve read 13 of them and these are marked in bold in the list below. The early books lack the depth that Rankin would add to the series later by linking his plots to topical issues, but all are very readable:

  1. Knots and Crosses (1987) ∗∗∗
  2. Hide and Seek (1991) ∗∗∗
  3. Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ∗∗∗
  4. Strip Jack (1992)
  5. The Black Book (1993) ∗∗∗
  6. Mortal Causes (1994) ∗∗∗
  7. Let it Bleed (1996)
  8. Black and Blue (1997)
  9. The Hanging Garden (1998) ∗∗∗∗
  10. Dead Souls (1999)
  11. Set in Darkness (2000) ∗∗∗∗
  12. The Falls (2001)
  13. Resurrection Men (2002) ∗∗∗∗
  14. A Question of Blood (2003)
  15. Fleshmarket Close (published in the USA as Fleshmarket Alley) (2004) ∗∗∗∗
  16. The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ∗∗∗∗½
  17. Exit Music (2007) ∗∗∗∗
  18. Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ∗∗∗½
  19. Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ∗∗∗
  20. Even Dogs in the Wild (2015)

Film Review Round-up – COWBOYS & ALIENS (2011); THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) and REBECCA (1940)

10531351-1322658704-826498Cowboys & Aliens (2011; USA; DeLuxe; 119m) ∗∗∗  d. Jon Favreau; w. Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; ph. Matthew Libatique; m. Harry Gregson-Williams.  Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Abigail Spencer, Buck Taylor, Matthew Taylor, Cooper Taylor, Clancy Brown, Paul Dano, Chris Browning, Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell, Ana de la Reguera, Noah Ringer, Brian Duffy, Keith Carradine, Walton Goggins. A spaceship arrives in Arizona, 1873, to take over the Earth, starting with the Wild West region. A posse of cowboys and natives are all that stand in their way. Starts out well but quickly descends into formula. Technical aspects are strong and Ford and Craig add much needed weight to an otherwise uninspired story.  Based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Extended version runs to 135m. [12]

41WAWC1EV0LPurple Rose of Cairo, The (1985; USA; DuArt; 82m) ∗∗∗½  d. Woody Allen; w. Woody Allen; ph. Gordon Willis; m. Dick Hyman.  Cast: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Van Johnson, Alexander H. Cohen, Dianne Wiest, Zoe Caldwell, John Wood, Milo O’Shea, Deborah Rush, Edward Herrmann, Karen Akers, Michael Tucker, Glenn Headly. In 1930s New Jersey, a movie character walks off the screen and into the real world. Clever fantasy comedy with sharp observations about the importance of escapism in the cinema during the depression era and wry observations about the Hollywood machine. [PG]

3003_frontRebecca (1940; USA; B&W; 130m) ∗∗∗∗  d. Alfred Hitchcock; w. Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan; ph. George Barnes; m. Franz Waxman.  Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Gladys Cooper. A self-conscious bride is tormented by the memory of her husband’s dead first wife. Absorbing and atmospheric mystery drama brilliantly acted and directed with evocative cinematography. Winner of Oscars for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, and received nominations for nine additional Oscars. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. [PG]

Book Review – THE SILKWORM (2014) by Robert Galbraith

THE SILKWORM by ROBERT GALBRAITH (2014, Sphere, Paperback, 584pp) ∗∗∗∗
      Blurb: When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days – as he has done before – and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.
      But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realises. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were published it would ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.

51nAhDhrL8LBy now it’s a well-known fact that author Robert Galbraith, who wrote the well-received The Cuckoo Calling, is in fact J.K. Rowling. For her second book featuring Afghanistan vet turned private eye, Cormoran Strike, Rowling weaves a tight mystery plot around the murder of a controversial novelist. The literary world is one very familiar to Rowling and she has a great amount of fun painting colourful characters.

There is something reassuringly old-fashioned about the structure of this book, which broadly sticks to the multiple suspect formula of the genre. Where Rowling wins out is in her depiction of her roguish one-legged hero, his professional relationship with his assistant, Robin and in the almost caricature cast of suspects. The writing is easy and the managing of the plot clever.

Book Review – HOPE TO DIE (2001) by Lawrence Block

HOPE TO DIE by LAWRENCE BLOCK (2001, Orion, Paperback, 340pp) ∗∗∗½
      Blurb: Byrne and Susan Hollander stroll home from a concert on a fine summer?s evening in New York. Some hours later, their daughter Kristin arrives home to discover her parents brutally killed and the house ransacked. She also finds she is now a very young millionaire. A few days later the police trace the two killers to an apartment in Coney Island, and both are dead. One killed the other before turning the gun on himself ? at least that?s the way it looks. So that?s another case solved. But for Matt Scudder it’s only the beginning. The more he looks into it, the more things look wrong to him. There’s a murderer out there, and he’s just getting started. Pitted in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Scudder is up against the most resourceful and diabolical killer of his career.

isbn9781409130109-detailHaving recently watched and enjoyed the old-school thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson as Lawrence Block’s ex-alcoholic and part-time detective Matt Scudder, I remembered I had bought a copy of another of Block’s Scudder tales from the bargain bin at Asda some months ago and never got round to reading it. So I decided to catch up on what I had missed.

I found the first half of the book a little too ponderous after the initial set-up of the case. There’s a lot of pages devoted to exposition and a sub-plot featuring the death of Scudder’s ex-wife and his re-uniting with his two sons. We are also reminded that Scudder is a reformed alcoholic who still regularly attends AA meetings. Now older and wiser he finds solace in helping others. Whilst this adds depth to the character it tends to slow the pace of the story. But Block is an experienced and canny writer and he gradually homes in on the case in hand, which twists and turns in unexpected directions. The pace picks up in the last hundred pages and the conclusion is both shocking and surprising.

When I was reading Scudder’s dialogue I had a clear vision of Liam Neeson in mind, showing what a good piece of casting it was and a significant improvement over the previous film adaptation of Scudder – Eight Million Ways to Die (1986) – in which he was played by Jeff Bridges. I look forward to reading more Matt Scudder and also hope he returns to the screen soon.