In which I snuggle up with an old Scottish lady

As a journo who covers and reads many stories of extreme real-life violence, my appetite for stories containing guns, beatings and murder has waned in recent years.

I’m hyper-conscious of domestic violence and psychotic mental illness and the sordid social ills that lead to them. I find myself wincing at the movies I used to love and even giving up the Netflix dramas I used to love. There’s enough drama in life. The most I can manage on a weeknight is a 20-minute giggle at Brooklyn 99 and I’d rather go back to Die Hard, which has mellowed with age, than watch the next John Wick movie.

But for some reason serial killer books remain the stuff of fantasy. There remains a level of safe remove, even of escape into unreality. That’s why one particularly grim night a week ago, after receiving some bad news about the illness of an old friend, there was no comfort like curling up with a new killer, from an old author I knew would deliver. Scottish writer Val McDermid has written 38 books over 30 years; she’s got the goods.

Insidious Intent (2017) is the latest in her most high-profile series, featuring detective inspector Carol Jordan and criminal profiler Tony Hill (you might remember, they featured in British TV series Wire in the Blood, which ran from 2002-2009).

There were unexpected evolutions for Carol and Tony in their last outing, Splinter the Silence, and I was keen to see where she took them next. I was not disappointed. Her genius lies in not just detailed, realistic police procedurals but in complex, flawed yet likeable characters. There is no point in a cracking plot if your characters fall flat, and McDermid has created a diverse and compelling cast in Tony, Carol and their motley team.

She develops them even further in this, and there is also AN AMAZING TWIST WHICH I WILL NOT RUIN FOR YOU in case you read it, which you should.

Actually you should probably read the series from the beginning in order to completely appreciate the twist. Book one was The Mermaids Singing (1995). Off you go.

 

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Hereditary

Went to Girls School Cinema in East Perth to see Hereditary on Sunday night. I had missed it at the mainstream movies but I’d heard it should be seen on the big screen if possible.

It’s the story of a family – Annie (Toni Collette), Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The death of Annie’s mother begins a series of grisly and disturbing events that leads her to the heart of a generations-old mystery.

I’d psyched myself up, because I had seen the trailer, which made it look like a combination of every fucked-up horror movie you’re ever seen, times 10. Amusingly, if you haven’t heard, at Event Cinemas they mistakenly played it during the previews for Peter Rabbit, totally freaking out a bunch of children and their mums (probably mainly the mums).

And I’d heard from my friend Sigrid, who is intimately acquainted with horror cinema, that it was one of the most disturbing movies she’d ever seen either. So, grimly prepared, I only let out one terrified mewling noise during the entire thing, which I was rather proud of.

The Ministry of course let out muffled snorts of laughter throughout, which we know was only his male pride deciding to view awful things as funny in order to protect himself emotionally. Right?

Because probably what was worst about this movie was its raw depiction of loss and grief and the terrible dynamics that can fester within families. It’s the combination of that with the intense horror scenes that made it so unusually confronting a movie.

All the performances were excellent, particularly Alex Wolff as the guilty, fearful and confused teenager Peter, but Collette was the obvious standout. She should win an Oscar for that performance. Her pain was awful to behold. It just remains to be seen whether an Oscar could go to a performance in a genre film.

It should! This is a smart genre film, with a dense plot. I’ve decided the use of the miniatures Collette’s character is crafting is just to keep you guessing and kind of freaked out by them (alternative theories welcome in the comments). But there were other elements of the storyline that didn’t seem to make sense, or that we thought were maybe just included for gratuitous horror purposes. We had to Google them before going, “ooooohhhhhh” and concluding that yes, it all made sense. It makes a nice change when a movie makes you work for it just a little.

This is required viewing for horror fans and Collette devotees. I fit both categories and so I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen for the full effect. It was an excellent film. But if you’re not in either category, maybe give yourself a break and pick something funny instead.

 

 

 

 

 

Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!

In which I tell you whether Lee Child’s 20th Reacher book has anything new to offer

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

More than happy to fork over airport prices for this baby.

Lee Child apparently writes one Reacher book per year and has done for the past 20 – he starts each September.

I love a good routine myself, so I like to read one Reacher book each year, starting around each September, when the new ones are released.

So I know what to expect from a Reacher book.

 

 

For those who don’t (inexcusable) – the books, like most crime series featuring a strong central protagonist or two, Reacher books are formulaic. Jack Reacher was born into a US military family and spent his childhood in temporary homes on military bases. Then he spent his adult working life as a military cop posted to more temporary bases. He has never known permanency or possessions.

A hulking bloke, a fighting machine born and trained for detective work, after his honourable discharge he can’t hack the thought of settled civilian life. So he treats the United States like another set of temporary bases, moving from town to town, hitching rides and catching buses in between, a perpetual traveller. He travels with only what he has in his pockets, buying cheap new clothes and junking them when they get dirty, living in motels, working casually from time to time – but never for long in the same spot. In each book, he hits a town with a dark secret, something fishy going on, and his unshakable sense of right and wrong (not necessarily matching the same compass points as anyone else’s sense of right and wrong) he gets embroiled in a mystery.

The books stand out not only for the supremely original and consistently drawn character but for solid, inventive plotting and – above all – minutely detailed fight scenes, detective work, military training and weapons knowledge.

These books require a little more suspension of disbelief each time (Reacher walks into trouble, something strange is going on in this town, it all starts in the local diner, he chooses not to walk away and there’s an eminently fuckable woman mixed up in it all) but the formula is all part of the fun, making these books like an annual birthday present when you know exactly what you’re getting but you never get any less excited.

The formula has won Lee Child fans across the globe. He is the crime writer that other crime writers read, one of the most famous working today.

To illustrate, when I’m walking home from the bus reading this I pass a lady checking her mailbox. We exchange smiles, then she pauses. “Ooo, my sister-in-law is reading that,” she says. Two days later I’m reading it on the bus and I’m the last passenger, so I’m waiting by the driver’s door to hop off. He looks at the book and says “ooo, I’ve read some of those. Is that a new one? Can I read the back?” And I wait for him to read the blurb, then we have a little conversation about how great Lee Child is. Just yesterday I saw a bloke in my office building carrying a Lee Child on the elevator. Pretty much whole family, regardless of age, gender or usual book taste, reads this series.

Party of five: Me, Lee Child, the Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

Party of five: me, Lee Child, Ministry, the dog and the pizza (not pictured. Got et.)

The 2014 release, Personal, got me so excited I begged off the usual Sunday night hangover movie and glued myself to it. Then I abandoned cooking dinner and ordered pizza so I didn’t have to stop reading, something that basically only ever otherwise happens in the Ministry’s wildest dreams. I thought while reading it that Child was at the top of his game. The humour was more pronounced than the faint dry humour usually present and it spoke of absolute confidence and a certain playfulness.

In 2015 I thought, can he do it again?

There are some differences in Make Me. The subject matter of this book is also darker than usual. The humour has not vanished, but it’s dialled right back down. It also gets into unfamiliar territory plot-wise, even for this most wide-ranging of series. There is a focus on technology, an entirely new direction for Child’s old-school protagonist. I’m amazed to tell you that Reacher encounters a woman who is not a tiny, willowy blonde. And we get a glimpse of vulnerability in Reacher we have never seen before, which adds unutterably to the suspense level. It all seems to add up to a new maturity and intensity for this series.

Best of all, it ends tantalisingly, with a question mark.

Do not, I repeat, do not watch the one movie made from this series so far (One Shot, starring Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher). It will ruin this series for you before you’ve even begun.

But there is no doubt Lee Child still has plenty up his sleeve. Do yourself a favour and check out this series.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 21: The Mystery of Swordfish Reef (Arthur W. Upfield, 1943)

Books left: 5. Weeks left: 8 (In the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC)

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Oh no, this was not his natural background, this heaving water which retained nothing on its surface for long. This was 11 January, and the genesis of the case, dated 3 October, was out here far from land. Life and the elements leave their records on the bush for years; but here on the sea life and the elements left no record for even such as he to read.
In all his bush cases he had many allies: the birds and the insects; the ground which was like the pages of a huge book wherein were printed the acts of all living things; the actions of rain and sunlight and wind. And greater than all these added together was his ally Time. And now of all his former allies only Time was with him.

Here lies another author I would never have discovered without working in ye olde secondhand bookshop and being familiar with its ‘literary crime’ section.

Books of this genre are characterised by their size, being neither the new-release “trade paperback” size or the pocket “A-formats” that generally follow. Literary crime novels are usually “B-format,” the same size as your literary fiction, and as they never fit in the general and crime fiction “troughs” so were generally poked into their own sad little section underneath that no-one saw. This was a shame, because these are some of the best books: a little off the beaten track in content as well as location, they represented the best of both worlds. Arthur Upfield proves that this holds true now as ever, a classic example of this rather unlikely genre: this Australian 1940s author’s hero is detective inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, investigator extraordinaire, bush tracker unparalleled and identified as was in those days called a “half-caste” Aborigine.

Upfield’s mysteries have earned their place as classics in Australian as well as crime fiction.

In this title “Bony”, as he prefers to be called, is asked to go to sea, a little swordfishing town called Bermagui on the coast of New South Wales, He must investigate a murder that appears to have occurred on the open water, and that has baffled the local and regional police.

I wondered for the first part whether I would be bored. I am not a particular fan of things angling or any stories that smell of the ocean – for someone who pities genre snobs, I sure do avoid general thrillers and seafaring fiction.

But the passion and suspense of hunting game fish, with all accompanying bloodlust, is masterfully done in this book. I, poor innocent, soon realised that swordfish were not the two or three-foot jobs I had imagined and I quickly became fascinated. I did a lot of Google-imaging before I was sated.

What begins as a charmingly dignified old-school mystery ends in a satisfying wash of adventure.
Without having even familiarised myself with Bony’s usual stomping-ground, I am delighted by the story of his being a fish (ha!) out of water.

When I am in my native bush, gentlemen … everything I observe, except the clouds, is static. On the sea nothing is static. A ship does not leave tracks on the sea.

And oh, the mystery! I was quickly sucked into this tale, with its distinctly Agatha-Christie type premise of a fishing launch, the Do-me, that vanishes without a trace, and the discovery of the murder of one of those aboard when we know she was seaworthy and those on her trustworthy. Like Marple or Poirot, Bony adores a puzzle such as this.

And so, having read all their reports and having gone through their collection of statements, I decided that this was a meaty bone on which to try the teeth of my brain.
It is certainly an out of the way case. I have to admit that I shy clear of crimes of violence where there are fingerprints and revolvers, bodies and missing valuables, and a nark or two in a thieves’ kitchen waiting to inform for the price of a beer. I like my cases minus bodies and minus clues, if possible. Which is why this
Do-me case so attracts me.

Bony is like my beloved Poirot, too, in his immaculate turnout, grand manner and “abnormal vanity” and lack of bother about things like procedure or the chain of custody; “his custom [much like Poirot’s] being to fade away after having placed the key-stone of an investigation into position.”

A note on historical context – apart from the occasional alarming use of the word half-caste, which is to the modern reader the equivalent of throwing a grenade on to the page; and a slightly hair-raising instance of Bony’s “Aboriginal instincts” rising up in a time of extremity to allow a “primitive” rage to rise to the surface, these instances are in exception to the general tone of the book, which has minimal reference to Bony’s origins, apart from the occasional pointing out the lack of prejudice other characters greet him with once they witness his “educated” voice and elegant manners. Perhaps in the other books’ more landlocked settings the racial elements are more pronounced.

Add to Upfield’s masterful mystery and delightful hero a pretty turn of phrase, and like a swordfish, I’m hooked. (Sorry, I’ll stop.).

I have found another crime writer I love… as if I needed one.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.

The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith, 2014)

The Silkworm: rainy-day fiction.

The Silkworm: rainy-day fiction.

Time off from The Curing of a Bibliomaniac is allowed, because my friend Sturdy lent me this alluring paperback and anything by J. K . Rowling, that is, Robert Galbraith, is essential reading.

 

 

My history as a crime junkie dates back to a time after I finished my uni degree, filled with postmodern literature, ye olde English literature, film theory, poetry, Shakespeare, Shakespeare in film, Australian fiction, Australian fiction in film, etc, etc.

This stuff was wicked, but it bruised my brain so severely that by the time I graduated I shuddered at the very sight of a Thinky Book.

Enter crime. The compulsive nature of crime serials by excellent authors such as Val McDermid, Colin Dexter, Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Frances Fyfield, to name but a few, served as a panacea to my aching soul, serving up quality reading material in a structure I could rely upon to be relatively unchanging.

Not THAT proud of my matching Colin Dexter collection, jeez.

Not THAT proud of my matching Colin Dexter collection, jeez.

 

Like a fool, I kept buying all kinds of books as well as these, hence large, slightly bibliomaniacal (is this a word?) collection of the unread. And the need for a cure. Hehehe. Searching for a cure for the unread. Get it?

 

 

But I digress. Suffice it to say that when a friend delivers a succulent new morsel such as this, I drop everything and snuggle down and say goodbye to society for a couple of days.

Silkworm did not disappoint – Galbraith’s writing is so deft and perceptive you can’t help but break into delighted smiles as you read, nodding in recognition, and sometimes even a giggle at some particularly incisive phrase.

The evocation of London is such that it makes you long to see it in front of you as Strike (central character, ex-soldier-turned private detective) does. Well, at least it was raining in Perth.

This is the second novel in the series, the first being The Cuckoo’s Calling, and as Sturdy says, there is some excellent character development in this instalment, with the promise of more to come.

The same thing struck me about Silkworm as The Cuckoo’s Calling: Galbraith inhabits diverse worlds with remarkable comfort, moving from poverty to riches, and detailing industries from fashion to publishing as though born to them.

This is a joy to read, a traditional, engrossing detective novel with everything it needs to be among the best in the genre: depth of character, tight plot, mood and style, with some deliciously shivery moments. It deserves to have real money spent on a physical book that takes up real space in your house.

If you’ll indulge me in a cringey metaphor, it’s more satisfying than a good meal, because generally after good food you feel a bit overfull and regretful, whereas this is a perfect portion that leaves you wanting more.

After continuing with How to Cure a Bibliomaniac, of course.