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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Kid on bike with space gun: coming soon to a movie theatre near you

So Stranger Things alerted the movie world to the fact that people like me will watch anything with a poster that looks like this. Accordingly, they have made a movie and released a poster that looks like this and accordingly, I am excited.
It’s from the producers of Stranger Things.

And Arrival, which I just realised I haven’t seen. This will be rectified.

It also contains Dennis Quaid and James Franco, kids on bikes and space guns. That’s all I need to know, but if you need more, here’s the blurb…

“A pulse-pounding crime thriller with a sci-fi twist from the producers of Stranger Things and ARRIVAL, KIN is the story of an unexpected hero destined for greatness. Chased by a vengeful criminal and a gang of otherworldly soldiers, a recently released ex-con and his adopted teenage brother are forced to go on the run after finding a futuristic super-weapon of mysterious origin as their only protection.”

They have released a trailer that suffers from that modern-day bane of being more than double the length it should be. So I warn you, stop watching after 1.20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Equalizer II

Saw this on Friday night. For the uninitiated, it’s basically hyper-violence in which Denzel Washington plays a CIA agent turned vigilante.

The Ministry calls it Black Jack Reacher.

The movies follow a 1980s TV show. I haven’t seen that, but I really liked the first The Equalizer movie, which broke new creative ground in its depiction of Denzel mentally calculating his fight sequences.

Denzel Washington turns everything he touches to gold, and this sequel is no exception, but it’s been turned into a straight-up action thriller, without the nuance of the first. But hey, what’s not to love about a straight-up action thriller, with Denzel Washington subjecting bad people to toe-curling, knuckle-biting levels of violence? 

Special mentions:

  1. A woman gives as good as she gets in a vaguely realistic fight scene. Rare.
  2. A commendable lack of car chases.

 

Amnesia: the ‘new’ Peter Carey book

Peter Carey’s easily one of my top five authors and on my fantasy dinner party list, so of course I leapt straight on to his new book. Well, I meant to.

Now that I’ve finally got round to it I realise that Amnesia was published in 2012, so shame on me. But it’s certainly not lost any of its potency during its patient wait for me on the shelves of the recently opened City of Perth Library (beautiful and well worth a visit).

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Disgraced political journalist Felix Moore, unemployed after a highly public defamation conviction, is commissioned by a shady but powerful ally to write a biography of – and thereby potentially gain public sympathy for – young Australian hacker Gaby Bailleux, whose parents he knew in their younger days.

She faces extradition to America for infiltrating prison systems there and at home and Moore is promised access to her in her hideout – but the access never eventuates. Moore, held by shadowy figures of the resistance movement in remote locations for his own ‘protection’, is forced into a dreamlike attempt to grasp his elusive subject, and pin her inner life to paper, through the infuriatingly scant and subjective secondary materials she sees fit to provide.

He writes her life story, each page whisked away for an editing process completely beyond his control. He is unable to separate her from the backdrop of the society into which she was born – one whose politics is forever troubled by its murky relationship with America, from Vietnam War-era machinations between the CIA and Australian government until the present.

It sounds complex, and it is. This plot is not for the faint-hearted, and I confess to a rather foggy understanding at times. It requires a focus beyond the level neede for your average page-turner or blog post; perhaps that’s why it’s taken me four years to read it.

But that’s not to say it’s boring. Its ambitious plot reflects a leap for Carey into a heady new direction for his style, in which he crafts a modern thriller that still bears the Carey hallmarks. His dialogue is immediate and unhampered by quotation marks, a feature of much of his writing, which adds to the sense of surreal displacement experienced by his narrator. It’s a part of his style that has been described as fabulism, in which a sense of the fantastic is blended with a realistically reported narrative. In fact, the whole book embodies this concept, in a sense – the story of the objective political reporter who suddenly finds himself flung down the rabbit hole.

Above all, the novel retains the sublime power of description I love Carey for, a power so great it really goes beyond description, in which words do not seem to go through your brain for translation into pictures and feelings, but instead seem to cut straight into your soul.

Amnesia, to be truthful, did not grab me by the heart and the imagination in quite the same unforgettable way his Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, did.

But it did reaffirm my belief that Carey is one of the world’s greatest living novelists. In it I could see the expertise that has built over the decades and appears to still be growing. A privilege to read.

 

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.