Tag Archives: Mystery

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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Rating: B+/ After her father dies and leaves her a small fortune’s worth of cattle, independent, no-nonsense Precious Ramotswe sells the livestock and single-handedly starts up her own detective agency with the money. People underestimate and try to undermine Precious at every turn, but her quick wit and ingenuity eventually make fools of them all. But she finds herself out of her depth while investigating her first major case, the disappearance of a little boy thought to have been snatched by witch doctors. Continue reading Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

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For your information, I broke the rules early on and read the fifth book, Gone, Baby, Gone in the Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series before I read his debut novel A Drink Before the War. Comparing the two, I actually like Gone Baby Gone, a teeny bit better than I like this one. I can see how Dennis Lehane developed as a writer between the penning of these two books. Not only is Gone, Baby, Gone more emotionally effective, it doesn’t hit the reader as much with its social issues.

Don’t get me wrong, A Drink Before the War is a well-written mystery. I don’t even generally read mysteries, but even when I’m in a funk and can’t seem to finish anything, I can finish a book by Dennis Lehane. I haven’t read a single one of his books that have let me down or proven difficult for me to complete yet. Although I preferred Gone, Baby, Gone to this, I recommend you read A Drink Before the War first since it is the first book in the series so the timeline will make more sense chronologically if you start there.

A Drink Before the War follows private investigator Patrick Kenzie, a world-weary smart aleck who pulls no punches about his cynicism concerning the human race, and his beautiful and spirited partner, Angela Gennaro, as they navigate a gritty, Noir-ish urban Boston landscape. Some phony politicians recruit Patrick to find a black cleaning lady, Jenna Angeline, who has pilfered some important documents and disappeared.

Immediately the case smells fishy; what exactly do these documents pertains to? And why does Jenna act like her thievery of the papers is a matter of honor when Patrick does manage to find her? The answer lies among a long-time feud between two gangs and a whole lot of political corruption (politicians? Be less-than-ethical? Why I never!)

Meanwhile, Patrick deals with his seemingly unrequited love for Angela, who’s married to an abusive d-bag who smacks her around, and confronts his own prejudices when a lot of racial and socioeconomic issues simmer to the surface of this deceptively simple case. This book is well-written, thoughtful, and exciting, and Patrick’s acerbic mixture of sarcasm and cynicism makes him a dynamite narrator. There’s always something interesting going on or bubbling up in the background of this action-packed book.

I do think Lehane went a little overboard with the hot-button race issues. The book hardly ever drags, but when it does, it is  due to the sometimes didactic exposition on white privilege and race wars the author sprinkles, occasionally excessively, into the prose. I think politics have a place in fiction, even detective fiction, but this was just too much. The story should be able to present it’s issues without beating us over the head with them.

I’ll admit, Gone, Baby, Gone didn’t always use the utmost subtlety when bringing up the perils of the child protective system, but this struck me as more heavy-handed. Maybe it’s partially because everything seems to be riding hard on race issues lately (from Black Lives Matter to the Oscars debate) so I didn’t need another reminder of the hostile racial climate of today.

However, A Drink Before the War benefits from Patrick’s fresh voice and a multitude of memorable characters such as the protagonist’s ticking time bomb one-man army of a ally Bubba Rodowsky and Jenna herself, who’s made some bad decisions in life but ultimately fucks herself attempting to do the right thing for herself and her family.

What I like best about this series is that every book’s a page turner, I can’t wait to get my hands on the second novel in the series, and I recommend Dennis Lehane to anyone with a enjoyment of crime fiction and a pretty strong stomach (his books can get pretty brutal at times.) If thrillers about scandal, corruption, and hard-boiled detective action is your thing, you should do yourself a favor and pick this book up from your local library or bookstore

The Changeling (1980)

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Old houses are evil. But if I owned a mansion as nice as the one George C. Scott has in this movie, I’d take a chance on the vengeful child spirit. Scott plays John Russell, an unflappable musical composer coping with the unexpected death of his daughter (Michelle Martin) and wife (Jean Marsh.) Russell moves into a gorgeous old house intent on doing some work on his music and attempting to move on from his loss, but before you can say “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” strange and eerie things start happening in the mansion. Largely unperturbed, and aided by lady friend and love interest Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere,) John decides to investigate.

I won’t go into who haunts the house or why, because it would cheat you out of the experience of seeing the movie and finding out for yourself, but I will say The Changeling is an eerie (a bit too dated to be truly frightening) horror classic with a great deal of mystery. The best part was when John Russell finds a secret passage behind a wooden shelf in his closet that leads to a hidden room. That meant a great deal to me, because when I was a youngster I used to spend vast expanses of time searching for hidden panels and doors in my a hundred-year-old but strangely unexceptional home (I might have also been looking for a wormhole to Narnia, but let’s not focus on my childhood obsessions.)

The characters were a bit underdeveloped (John being weirdly nonreactive to the supernatural mayhem around him while Claire plays the role of the typical classic heroine, shrieking and fretting constantly until you want to tell her if she can’t deal with a little ghostly hi jinks, she needn’t get involved at all.) John’s motivations actually make a lot of sense; as a recently bereaved husband and father a suggestion of life after death should be a relief to him. He’s already experienced so much grief, more than he lets on, why should the spooky antics of a spirit not at rest break him? However, although George C. Scott does an amazing job balancing stoicism and unfathomable grief, his character left me a little cold. And I had no use for Van Devere’s shrieking woman in peril, who falls in little flat from the perspective of someone who has seen so many bad-ass women portrayed in movies, or at least women with something to do in the script except wail and tremble in abject terror.

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That said, I really do like The Changeling. It’s a classical ghost story with a lot of atmosphere; no gore or lurid shocks to be seen. If you like movies like The Others with Nicole Kidman (one of my favorites, and superior in many ways to the much-hyped The Sixth Sense,) you’ll like this.  I love that The Others in all likelihood borrowed the character idea of a elderly caretaker named Mr. Tuttle, a homage that none but the most perceptive horror fans will probably  catch. Although I feel sorry in a way for the wronged spirit, just a boy at the time of his death, I thought he acted a little harshly in punishing the senator (Melvyn Douglas,) indirectly related to his murder but still the only remaining opportunity to get revenge on a living person.

I really felt for Melvyn Douglas’ character, who discovers something no one should have to learn about their much-loved father. While Douglas is the ‘changeling’ of the title, he’s not as much a perpetrator as a fellow unfortunate who was nevertheless lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and achieve success, while the spirit languished and limbo and allowed his hate to grow.

  The Changeling isn’t really a horror movie of a keep-you-up-all-night variety, it’s low-key and dated and in  all actuality not terribly scary. On the other hand, if you like murder mysteries that will keep you guessing and that incorporate a creepy supernatural element, this movie is for you. It takes a somewhat old soul or fan of older horror to appreciate this; it isn’t for those that crave instant gratification or get impatient easily. It’s a mood piece, graced by the formidable presence of George C. Scott. But it will survive when the majority of modern fright flicks are forgotten in junkyards somewhere.

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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

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Despite the huge Dennis Lehane kick I’ve been on lately, I was unsure about reading his 2003 novel ‘Shutter Island’ because I wasn’t a big fan of the Leo DiCaprio film. While I still highly question the realism of the twist ending, I’m as utterly in love with Lehane’s writing as ever, and this is a slightly different offering from him, an entertaining riff on Gothic mid-20th century pulp fiction that pulsates barely contained malice. I just wish I hadn’t watched the movie first, since nothing was as big a surprise to me as one might hope for.

Teddy Daniels, an emotionally traumatized, serious U.S. Marshall and veteran of the second World War grieving the loss of his wife Dolores in an apartment fire a few years prior, arrives at Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane searching for an escaped patient, Rachel Solando. Solando was incarcerated for the fillicide of her three children and has seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving nothing but a few puzzling hand-written codes in her wake. Teddy comes onto Shutter Island, the foreboding location of Ashcliffe Hospital by ferry with his good-humored partner, Chuck Aule.

A place that houses only society’s most dangerous and volatile inmates, eerie hints of ongoing human experimentation, a doozy of a hurricane heading their way and threatening to total the control panel and release the crazies from their cells- what could go wrong? Poor Teddy is continually haunted by visions and nightmares of the most macabre variety, spooky reminders of the wife he lost and the uncertainty surrounding her death, He’s not well… and things are going to get a whole lot worse…

Teddy is a tough cookie, but the island begins to not-so-slowly get under his skin, and soon the bereaved paranoiac begins to believe that everyone, and everything, is out to get him. There’s a ton of historical context to this novel, from flashbacks of World War II concentration camps, to Cold War-era anxiety, to the ongoing stigmatization of mental illness. However, none of these things are pedantically pushed upon the reader and the novel as a whole is a fast-paced, exhilarating read.

The setting is fascinating (especially for a self-proclaimed fan of the macabre and Gothic like me) and the characters are easy to picture in one’s head with Lehane’s adept descriptive passages. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book horror- more of a dark psychological thriller with tons of sinister build-up and uncertainty going on, as well as some extremely strange dream sequences that unsettlingly (but accurately) portray Teddy’s troubled psyche. There’s a very important message beneath all this weirdness, a commentary on the horrors that spring up from denying escalating mental illness in a loved one, an all-too-common occurrence in the recent past.

‘Shutter Island’ isn’t perfect, and it isn’t as riveting as some of Lehane’s work. As I stated at the beginning, the end twist seems so improbable that it almost ruined the movie for me. I would go so far as to say it doesn’t really make sense under close scrutiny. Dennis Lehane’s dialogue can be a bit unrealistic at times (while being utterly plausible at others,) especially when he tries to hard to make a particular point, and Teddy’s conversation with the bile-spitting, expletive-screaming warden is one such instance where a little bit of editing and subtle toning-down of the subject matter could have done wonders.

Of the three Lehane novels I’ve read (“Gone, Baby, Gone,” “Mystic River,” and this book, “Shutter Island,”) I recommend you read the one you haven’t seen the movie for first. I was kind of bummed to already see the twist for this and “Mystic River” coming, while “Gone, Baby, Gone”  was a riveting experience unmarred by already seeing the characters and the situations pictured in my head by the movie. I don’t think this is a very believable book when you examine it under a microscope (the other two are much more plausible in terms of plot,) but it’s just as exciting and entertaining as the others, plus there’s the Gothic backdrop that offers some dark spookiness to to the author’s repertoire.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

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Three childhood friends, reunited in adulthood and all marching toward a shared spiritual and psychological destruction. Sound cheerful? Clint Eastwood adapted this novel, so if you’re a fan of Eastwood’s directorial endeavors you might be familiar with this story of betrayal and revenge. The aging movie star’s filmmaking capabilities are undeniable, but there’s something about reading a novel versus watching it’s film adaptation, you know? Most of the time, anyway.

‘Mystic River’ is a dark read on a plethora of tough subjects (child abduction and the ensuing sexual abuse, latent pedophilic tendencies, a father’s grief over the violent death of his daughter,) but if anyone is up for the job of writing gritty urban realism featuring the tragic mistakes of regular people and their fatal repercussions, it’s Dennis Lehane.

The man has a gift- with dialogue, with character description, with prose so fluid and lush it’s reading is similar to the experience of watching a great movie. His characters never seem unrealistically colorful or contrived. They grab your attention honestly- through the strength of great storytelling. ‘Mystic River’ is about three boys- Dave Boyle, Sean Devine, and Jimmy Markum- who grow up into three damaged men. Where did it all go wrong? For these guys, the proverbial shit hit the fan when 11-year-old Dave was coerced into a car by two men pretending to be police officers as his friends looked on and molested for five days before making his escape, becoming quite the local celebrity in the process.

But Dave doesn’t want lurid, however short-lived fame. He wants his childhood back. Once an eager-to-please schoolboy and a bit of a brownnosing crony to the stronger, more well-liked Jimmy, Dave grows up to be a tormented adult who has experienced a splintering of self- some of him is still in that basement, yearning to escape. Hell, all the boys are haunted by that day, the unresolved questions that reared their ugly heads when that car came to take Dave away. Twenty-five years later, another tragedy occurs. Now-grown ex-con Jimmy Markums’ 19-year-old daughter, Katie, is brutally murdered in the park after a drunken night on the town.

Now, who should come back into Jimmy’s life but Sean- a cop investigating the Katie Markum case- and Dave- a suspect in her violent death. Katie’s death has many suspects, more the further you look from different angles (in classic detective story fashion.) While initially Katie seems like a girl with not an enemy in the world, further inspection produces a different, darker take on those she associated with. Confronting a case that seems increasingly personal the farther he digs forward, Sean must ask the ultimate question- who killed Katie Markum? And will the actual murderer’s insistence on keeping his identity under wraps spell destruction for the three men?

I found ‘Mystic River’ less confusing than the first novel I read by Dennis Lehane, “Gone Baby Gone” but also slightly less compelling. That might have been partially because I already knew the ending to ‘Mystic River,’ having seen the movie beforehand. It was just a matter of getting there. There is no real redemption in either story; if anything, every good thing that comes from ‘Mystic River’s ending is more detrimental that satisfactory- take, for instance, Sean’s reunion with his wife paired with his decision to take all the flack for their break-up. He got what he wanted, but will he really wind up happy?

I don’t think the mystery is too hard to solve if the reader pays close attention to the clues provided along the way. All three men are sympathetic In their own way (despite Dave’s impure, albeit unacted-on, carnal appetites and Jimmy’s astonishing capacity for violence) while still being deeply flawed and troubled. Dennis Lehane’s prose is so easy to fall in love with. It is strong, consistent, and descriptive.  He cares about these characters and he wants you to care about them too, but he doesn’t always make them easy candidates for compassion, if you know what I mean.

In the end, what has been gained? What has been learned? If you say zilch. you’re certainly on the right track. A continuing theme is loss- of innocence, of love, of family, of humanity. We move beyond our past tragedies, if we’re lucky. But do they move past us? More of a psychological study of guilt and grief than a hard-and-dry mystery, ‘Mystic River’ is simultaneously harsh, delicate, and haunting.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

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If you go into this movie expecting answers to your multitude of questions, you’ll only be disappointed and disillusioned by the lack of explanation provided here. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is as beautiful and mysterious as the Australian Outback that serves as it’s backdrop. Lovely, virginal school girls in white. Four make the ill-fated climb up Hanging Rock one Valentine’s Day, 1900. But do four come back? After one stunned girl (Christine Schuler) descends the rock unaccompanied by her companions, a all-encompassing search is declared for the young ladies.

Dandyish youth Michael (Dominic Guard) finds himself sucked in by the girl’s disappearances and searches for them with the reluctant help of his working-class friend Albert (John Jarrett) But to no avail. The teens are quite purely and simply… gone. Meanwhile, bereaved outcast Sara (Margaret Nelson) mourns for her only friend (maybe something more? the film obliquely asks) Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert,) vanished on the now infamous Hanging Rock, while her coarse headmistress (Rachel Roberts) fights to break her spirit.

Visually “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is spectacular, featuring a sumptuous palate, gorgeous indoor sets, and breath-taking scenery showing the Australian Outback in all it’s starkly inhospitable splendor. It isn’t really a movie about characters and feelings as it is a eerie evocation of a time and place, plagued with locals who are more concerned about the young women’s virtue in the wake of such an event than their happiness or psychological health.

When a girl (the only one of three) is found stunned and catatonic, everyone is obsessed whether she is ‘intact’ (i.e. not ravaged by a ill-intentioned Aussie) to a not-quite-normal point. Yes, rape is a terrible thing, but the townspeople’s interest has less to do with genuine concern over Irma (the girl)’s sexual or physical well-being and more to do with their own long-buried repression and diseased small-town curiosity.

Peter Weir establishes an uncanny/unnerving vibe here, a portrayal of small-town Australia so deeply felt yet faraway and surreal that it begins to feel like a passing dream. Anyone who watches this movie is likely to wonder “What is this really about here?” Is it about sex, or frustrated lack of such? Is it about small-town ignorance to the point where the disappearance of young people is something to something to excitedly speak of over toast? Is it about lesbianism?

When the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, speaks of the middle-aged teacher (Vivean Gray) who vanished with the others while looking for her missing pupils, she specifically compliments her ‘masculine energy.’ Is Miss Appleyard a lesbian, so deeply mired in the throes of repression that she takes her frustration out on the similarly-inclined Sara? Maybe the Rock is a metaphor for something else, something that similarly can’t be contained or explained.

There’s really not much to directly say about this movie without doing some considerable reading between the lines, which might take multiple viewings and discussions. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the main plotline is left frustratingly open to interpretation. Those of you who love mysterious, dreamlike films will probably be all-too-willing to partake, while those who need an up-front explanation should run away from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” lest they be frustrated and exasperated to it’s focused ambiguity. “Picnic…” is a classic for a reason, but it’s not for everybody.

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Broadchurch (2013)

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In a sleepy close-knit coastal town, 11-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara) is found murdered, his body dumped on the beach. At first, it seems like the crime nobody could have committed- the people of Broadchurch are like friends and family to each other, and even the black sheep seem more or less harmless. But as surly outsider DI Alec Hardy (a worn-down, sunken-cheeked post-“Who” David Tennant) and D.S. Ellie Miller (the wonderful Olivia Colman,) who has ties to the victim investigate, they find that everyone in this town’s got secrets. And some of them are worth killing for.

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There are only eight episodes here, so you don’t have as much of a commitment as a viewer than a lot of TV shows. All the actors in this series are wonderful, and the show keeps you  on the edge of your seat. It’s nice to see that David Tennant is expanding his horizons beyond being the ‘cute funny foreign guy with the crazy hair.’ He’s genuinely good here as a disgraced detective with an serious heart condition that’s interfering with his work. What’s not nice is the fact that he will be duplicating the role in the pointless American remake “Gracepoint.” But I’ll explain my feelings about the superfluous “Broadchurch” carbon copy later.

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I’ve thought Olivia Colman was a tremendous talent since I saw her play the abused Christian charity shop worker in Paddy Considine’s wrenching “Tyrannosaur.” She does the great work we expect of her after her powerful portrayal of that character. Lots of the supporting players do great jobs too. I always thought of David Bradley as ‘that nasty greasy old dude’ as a faithful watcher of the Harry Potter movies. Here he shows range and depth playing a lonely man who may or may not be a sex offender.

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The side plot portraying the grief of Danny’s family- his mother, Beth (Jodie Whittaker,) his father, Mark (Andrew Buchan,) and his big sister Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont)- was heartbreaking. I had previously seen Jodie Whittaker in “Attack the Block,” which was a lot of fun, and she does a good job as a mother whose grief swallows up her life. And it was a laugh seeing Arthur Darvill (“Doctor Who”) as a vicar. I was glad they portrayed Rev. Paul Coates (Darvill) fairly instead of making him the babbling mindless hypocrite they usually portray religious authorities as. And I’m so glad they didn’t go the pedophile route with his character.

The mystery is really hard to figure out (at least for me, someone who doesn’t read or watch mysteries, but that might not be saying much.) At the end I had it narrowed down to a few characters, and one of the characters I picked turned out to be the killer, but I was still surprised. The scenery is beautiful, and the show shows that even in a idyllic town, there are still some people who are missing a few nuts and bolts. A murder can happen anywhere, but in my opinion, you shouldn’t surrender to fear and you should still let your kids live the freest life you can allow.

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This is a highly entertaining show, but it lacks the extra ‘umph’ to make me give it a higher rating than 4/5. My dad won’t watch it because he likes ‘fun’ shows and he thinks it will be depressing, but it is no more depressing than a murder mystery concerning a child has to be. And as far as sensitive viewers go there’s barely any violence whatsoever. I’m mad that the American remade it with the same damn actor (!) and as far as I can tell from the trailer, the show is exactly the same. Why the heck can’t Americans watch the original program instead of some cheap rip-off? But I digress. “Broadchurch” is a worthy watch carried on the shoulders of Colman and Tennant.

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