Book Review – ‘TIL DEATH (1959) by Ed McBain

‘TIL DEATH (1959) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1986, 160pp (157pp)
First published in 1959 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1959
ISBN: 978-0-140-02164-6
Blurb: The wedding day of Detective Steve Carella’s sister Angela should be the most romantic, special day of her life. But it might turn out to be the worst if her brother can’t figure out which man on the guest list has come to murder the groom. Carella and the men from the 87th Precinct find themselves on the clock as they desperately hunt amongst the name cards and catered dinners for the would-be assailant. Trouble is, the crowd has numerous people with viable motives: the best man who stands to inherit everything the groom owns, the ex-boyfriend with a homicidal crush, and even an ex-GI with a score to settle. But time is ticking, and if they don’t act fast, Angela will become a bride—and a widow—on the same day.
Comment: The ninth in the 87th Precinct series written by Ed McBain is this offbeat story set at the wedding of Carella’s sister. As such the story acts as a diversion from the grittier storylines that precede and follow it. The result is a minor entry in the series that coasts on McBain’s command of his characters and dialogue. The plot itself often lacks plausibility and as such fails to engage in the way his earlier titles did. Even at a brief page count of just under 160 pages, there are elements of padding where the author and his characters philosophise. That said McBain’s skill as a writer gets him through to a tense, if somewhat familiar, finale. Not top-draw McBain, but an often fun and diverting and easy read despite this.

Book Review – LADY KILLER (1958) by Ed McBain

LADY KILLER (1958) ***
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1986, 176pp (172pp)
First published in 1958 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1958
ISBN: 978-0-140-02019-9
Blurb: “I will kill the Lady tonight at 8. What can you do about it?” The boys of the 87th have just twelve hours to find out who the crank letter writer is–and who he means by “the Lady “–for whom there will be no second chance.
Comment: This is often listed as the eighth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, but as I read through it I realised it was written and set before Killer’s Wedge, so is the seventh. Having read the whole series before, this can now be seen as a warm-up for some of the Deaf Man cases that infrequently occupied the squad’s time. Here a would-be killer taunts the squad that he will kill “The Lady” at 8 pm and it is up to the detectives to track down who wrote the note and who the intended target is. The investigation leads the squad down some blind alleys before they close in on their target. The book is one of the lesser of the early entries which, whilst endowed with McBain’s usual excellent prose and dialogue, feels a little bit manufactured and the conclusion leaves the reader questioning the motives of the detectives’ quarry. It is still a quick and entertaining read and a formula that McBain would develop better in the Deaf Man books.

Book Review – KILLER’S WEDGE (1959) by Ed McBain

KILLER’S WEDGE (1959) ****
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Allison & Busby, 2007, 242pp (233pp)
First published in 1958 (USA)
© The Estate of Ed McBain, 1958
ISBN: 978-0-749-08023-5
Book CoverBlurb: Her game was death – and her name was Virginia Dodge. She was out to put a bullet through Steve Carella’s brain, and she didn’t care if she has to kill all the boys in the 87th Precinct to do it. So Virginia, armed with gun and bottle of nitro-glycerine, spent a quiet afternoon in the precinct house, terrorizing Lieutenant Byrnes and his detectives with her clever little homemade bomb. They all sat there waiting for Steve Carella. Could all the men of the 87th, prisoners of one crazy broad, be powerless to save Carella from his rendezvous with death…?
Comment: This is the seventh of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and here he takes a different approach by making the main plot a tense thriller and the sub-plot a mystery. The revenge plot in which Virginia Dodge holds the 87th squad captive at gunpoint with a jar of nitro is extremely well written by McBain as the tension escalates. He uses third person and first person perspectives to heighten the tension and frame the varying viewpoints of the characters. Meanwhile, Virginia’s intended target, Steve Carella, is investigating the death of a wealthy socialite found hanged in a locked room. The latter sub-plot follows a very traditional mystery path and is merely a supporting function to the main story. Suspense is heightened when Carella’s wife, Teddy, arrives at the squad room only to be confronted by the siege. A successful diversion for the series continuing McBain’s impressive run.

TV Review – VIGIL (2021)

VIGIL (2021, UK) ***½
Crime, Drama

pr co. World Productions; net. BBC One; exec pr. Tom Edge, Jake Lushington, James Strong, Leslie Finlay, Simon Heath, Gaynor Holmes, Roderick Seligman; pr. Angie Daniell; d. Isabelle Sieb, James Strong; w. Tom Edge, Chandni Lakhani, Ed Macdonald (based on an original idea by George Aza-Selinger); ph. Matt Gray, Ruairí O’Brien; m. Glenn Gregory, Berenice Scott; ed. Chris Buckland, Nikki McChristie, Steven Worsley; pd. Tom Sayer; b/cast. 29 August-26 September 2021; r/t. 6 x 60m.

cast. Suranne Jones (Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva), Rose Leslie (Detective Sergeant Kirsten Longacre), Shaun Evans (Warrant Officer Elliot Glover), Martin Compston (Chief Petty Officer Craig Burke), Paterson Joseph (Commander Neil Newsome), Adam James (Lieutenant Commander Mark Prentice), Gary Lewis (Detective Superintendent Colin Robertson), Lauren Lyle (Jade Antoniak), Lolita Chakrabarti (Lieutenant Commander Erin Branning), Dan Li (Lieutenant Commander Hennessy), Lorne MacFadyen (Petty Officer Matthew Doward), Connor Swindells (Lieutenant Simon Hadlow), Lois Chimimba (Chief Petty Officer Tara Kierly), Daniel Portman (Chief Petty Officer Gary Walsh), Anjli Mohindra (Surgeon Lieutenant Tiffany Docherty), Anita Vettesse (Petty Officer Jackie Hamilton), Stephen Dillane (Rear Admiral Shaw).

This expansive and ambitious mix of crime mystery, conspiracy and international politics sees Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva (Jones) of the Scottish Police Service sent to HMS Vigil, a Vanguard class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, to investigate a death on board, which takes place shortly after the mysterious disappearance of a Scottish fishing trawler. Her investigations, and those of her colleagues ashore, bring the police into conflict with the Royal Navy and MI5, the British Security Service. The plot is mixed with a tragic back story for Jones leading to her tentative relationship with Leslie. It is these domestic scenes that tend to slow an otherwise fats-paced and enjoyable thriller that plays on its audiences phobias and paranoia. The direction is strong and the script, though exceedingly complicated, has sufficient intrigue and character conflict to retain interest. The production design is excellent, although the submarine interiors seem larger than you might expect, likely to accommodate camera movement and shot framing. The denouement is a little protracted, but overall this is an often tense and enjoyable production.

Book Review – THE CON MAN (1957) by Ed McBain

THE CON MAN (1957) ***½
by Ed McBain
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 1987, 174pp (168pp)
First published in 1957 (USA)
© Ed McBain, 1957
ISBN: 978-0-140-01971-1
Blurb: A con man is plying his trade on the streets of Isola: conning a domestic for pocket change, businessmen for thousands, and even ladies in exchange for a little bit of love. You can see the world, meet a lot of nice people, imbibe some unique drinks, and make a ton money…all by conning them for their cash. The question is: How far is he willing to go? When a young woman’s body washes up in the Harb River, the answer to that question becomes tragically clear. Now Detective Steve Carella races against time to find him before another con turns deadly. The only clue he has to go on is the mysterious tattoo on the young woman’s hand—but it’s enough. Carella takes to the streets, searching its darkest corners for a man who cons his victims out of their money…and their lives.
Comment: This is the fourth of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books and it continues with the successful formula established in the trio of 1956 titles. This time there are two independent plots involving confidence tricksters, the latter of which is the meatier of the two and also leads to a serial killer. McBain has nicely honed his easy-going writing style, interlaced with witty dialogue and conversational description. Here again, each plot is resolved in ways impacted by happenstance, demonstrating the detectives’ reliance on luck as well as their skilful use of procedure. Carella’s deaf-mute wife, Teddy becomes involved in the murder plot, which leads to a tense and thrilling climax in which McBain interweaves short scenes involving the protagonists in a way that emulates a tightly-cut movie. This makes for a satisfying conclusion to a book that continues to demonstrate McBain’s exceptional talent whilst, as yet, not reaching the heights  the series would go on to achieve.

Book Review – THE PUSHER (1956) by Ed McBain

THE PUSHER (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: 978-0-140-01970-4
Blurb: A bitterly cold night offers up a body turned blue—not frozen, but swinging from a rope in a dank basement. The dead teen seems like a clear case of suicide, but Detective Steve Carella and Lieutenant Peter Byrnes find a few facts out of place, and an autopsy confirms their suspicions. The boy hadn’t hung himself but OD’d on heroin before an unknown companion strung him up to hide the true cause of death. The revelation dredges up enough muck to muddy the waters of what should’ve been an open-and-shut case. To find the answers to a life gone off the rails, Carella and Byrnes face a deep slog into the community of users and pushers—but a grim phone calls discloses that very community already has its claws in a cop’s son. A new pusher is staking a claim right under the 87th Precinct’s noses, and it’s up to Carella and Byrnes to snag the viper before it poisons their whole lives.
Comment: The third of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books is geared around a story that runs close to home for Lt. Pete Byrnes, head of the 87th Precinct’s detective squad, when his son is implicated in the murder of a drug pusher. By introducing a case with personal investment McBain gets to explore further the detective characters he has created. Byrne’s family life is fleshed out and we see more of the relationship he has with his squad – notably Detective Steve Carella, who is officially working on the case and is taken into Byrne’s trust. The book is full of McBain’s writing flourishes with snappy dialogue and his trademark prose. The plot is linear and follows the logical progression of the investigation without the need to resort to contrivances. Another solid book in the series.

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.

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.

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)