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Brian Greene
Showing posts by: Scott Adlerberg click to see Scott Adlerberg's profile
Mar 13 2015 2:00pm

The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal

It’s 1968, the height of the Cold War, and we are in Mexico City. Filiberto Garcia is a sixty year old Mexican policeman. Over the course of his life he has killed people: men, women, a priest. As a young man, he fought in the Mexican Revolution, serving under Pancho Villa, his killing backed by a just cause. But what he once did to help his country transform itself into something better, he now does strictly as a job. By 1968, the Mexican politicians have long since betrayed the Revolution. Real men like Villa and Zapata no longer call the shots. Cold, duplicitous figures who occupy offices in their suits now pull the strings. They of course kill also, but they never do the dirty work themselves.   They need others to do it for them, and that’s where Garcia, the central character in The Mongolian Conspiracy, comes in. When the novel opens, he is working as a pistolero – effectively, a police hitman – and any ideals he once had seemed to have died inside him.

Rafael Bernal’s 1969 novel appeared at a critical moment in Mexican history. In October 1968, military and police under the command of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had massacred perhaps as many as 400 peacefully protesting students in the country’s capital. The PRI had grown out of the socialist-leaning revolution that ended some forty odd years earlier, and it had dominated Mexican politics since that time. The brutal repression of the leftist students just before Mexico was to host the Summer Olympic games made absolutely clear the extent to which Mexico’s political class had become authoritarian, in betrayal of the revolution’s ideals. The event remains a seminal one in Mexican history, and you have to assume that a bunch of the men who fired on the university students were men precisely like Filiberto Garcia – hired guns, men doing a murderous job to collect their pay, political subtleties be damned. That Rafael Bernal, on the heels of this national trauma, would make his protagonist this kind of gunslinger took guts. As author Francisco Goldman notes in the book's introduction, this was not a character likely to appeal to most Mexican readers. And in fact, the book did not do all that well when it was first published. In Mexico, after falling out of print, it became very difficult to find. But a reissue appeared, and with the passing of time, its reputation has grown. It was translated into English in 2013. The Mongolian Conspiracy is part noir, part detective story, part pulp fantasia, part Cold War thriller satire. As well, it’s a novel about a city, or a certain strata of a particular huge metropolis; in Goldman's words, The Mongolian Conspiracy is “The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.”

[Sounds clear enough to me...]

Dec 19 2014 1:00pm

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Broadly speaking, there are two types of mystery stories: whodunnits and whydunnits. We read a mystery story to find out who committed the crime (with the why, the motive, often serving to help the investigator find the culprit), or we read knowing from early on who the guilty party is as the story lays out the reasons, psychological and otherwise, that prompted the crime. An intriguing subclass of the whodunit is the inverted detective story. In this type, the howcatchem, the crime, and usually the perpetrator are shown at the story’s beginning. The main thrust of the drama here becomes how the detective goes about solving the crime and catching, or killing, the perpetrator. Nearly every episode of Columbo follows this format and, more recently, Luther. But what about a mystery story where, from the first pages, the reader knows who did the crime, why they did it, who they killed and how the person was killed – yet no detective solves anything? In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the setting is a small village in Columbia, South America, and to add to the excess of information known, not only does the reader know all the crime’s particulars, but the characters in the story, the village residents, know before the fatal act occurs who will be killed, by whom, and why. Everyone even remotely connected to the killing knows the pertinent facts, with the possible exception of the victim. When all the typical questions that a mystery story answers are answered from the get-go, what kind of mystery is left? What does the narrative’s investigator need to investigate? It’s precisely these enigmatic areas that are explored in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel.

[To South America we go...]

Aug 15 2014 11:00am

Jungle Horses: Exclusive Excerpt

Scott Adlerberg

Jungle Horses by Scott Adlerberg focuses on a London man, who after falling into debt with the wrong people, is forced on a trip to a Caribbean island to study a mysterious breed of horses (available August 19, 2014).

Arthur lives a quiet life in London, wandering from the bar to the racetrack and back again. When his pension check dries up, Arthur decides to win it all back with one last big bet at the bookie. When that falls through, Arthur borrows money and repeats the process, until he's in too deep with a vicious gang of leg-breakers.
The plan to save his skin will take him far from his home, to a place where a very different breed of horse will change his life forever.


Chapter 1

The horses that Arthur saw in his dreams were always running through tropical terrain.  The land was green and the sky deep blue, but this was not the African farm where he'd once bred racing horses.  These were not those sleek thoroughbreds nor were they tame farm horses burdened by saddle, stirrup, and bit.  The horses ran through a lush place, and despite the denseness of the terrain they seemed to run with complete abandon, never stumbling as they tore through bush.  They were jungle horses, immense yet graceful, and somehow he knew as one knows in dreams that none of these majestic creatures had ever been mounted by a man.  How different they were from the horses he'd ridden in his life, and how different too from the London ponies he would bet day after day.  They were unique, he would think in his dreams, and the vision of their bright green jungle would fade, the beautiful horses would disappear, and he would awaken in the hard double bed with the grayness of the ceiling above him.

[Continue reading Jungle Horses by Scott Adlerberg...]

Jun 27 2014 12:00pm

Gangster Cinema, British Style: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is not the first film you're likely to come up with when thinking about British gangster movies. Filmmaker Peter Greenaway, who began his artistic endeavors as a painter, has made a name for himself as a creator of provocative and sometimes experimental works of greater or lesser accessibility (The Draughtsman's Contract, Prospero's Books, The Tulse Lipper Suitcases), and no one would call him a genre filmmaker of any sort. And yet, in The Cook, the Thief, released in 1989, Greenaway wrote and directed a film that has a gangster, Albert Spica, as its central character. The film is not a conventional gangster picture, but it has at its core the ingredients that make up many a basic crime drama: violence, betrayal, romance, revenge. How these ingredients fit together is what makes the film unusual—a film no one but Greenaway, with his distinctive approach to visuals and narrative, could have made.

But let's start with the plot: somewhere in England, a gangster named Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has bought Le Hollandais Restaurant, run by the French chef Richard (Richard Bohringer). Every night Spica turns up at the restaurant with his entourage of goons, and this boorish group proceed to offend the restaurant staff and customers. Spica himself is violent and crude, and he holds court from the center of his table. He's a self-proclaimed authority on everything, a person intolerant of dissent. Besides his thugs, he's accompanied each night by his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), a woman who somehow manages to conduct herself with class and tact while enduring the bellowing onslaughts of her husband. Right under his nose, she takes up with a man who always dines alone while reading a book (Alan Howard), and this affair continues with the help of the restaurant staff. Everyone knows the explosion that will happen if Albert discovers the affair, and sure enough when he does, the cruelty he enacts on his wife and her lover (and a child who helped them) is monumental. His wife's sense of loss is deep. Her lover was everything Albert is not: kind, quiet, thoughtful. Above all, like her, he enjoyed books.  He lived for something other than power, money, and eating—the things Albert values. Emboldened by her grief, Georgina talks revenge, and she convinces the restaurant chef to help her.  Richard, Georgina, and all the many people Albert has hurt band together.  Restaurant staff are among the avengers; so are former members of Albert's crew.  The vengeance they take out on him is horrific, as cruel as anything he did to others, but it's exactly what he deserves.

[It gets even crazier...]

Apr 23 2014 1:00pm

Fresh Meat: The Poor Boy’s Game by Dennis Tafoya

The Poor Boy's Game by Dennis Tafoya is a standalone thriller about Frannie, a U.S. Marshal whose violent childhood memories come rushing back when her father escapes from prison (available April 29, 2014).

If you've read Dennis Tafoya, you know that he's a writer who embeds family drama, with its complex emotional turmoil, inside hardboiled crime fiction. The Poor Boy's Game, his third novel, is no exception. It centers around Marshal Frannie Mullen, from Philadelphia, and the consequences that result from two events. The first, in Philly, is a botched attempt by Frannie and her colleagues to catch a felon who has jumped bail. The second is the escape from a Louisiana prison of her father Patrick. He has his own business to take care of in Philadelphia, and the news that he has returned to his old stomping grounds adds stress to Frannie's life. Patrick is a former boxer who was an enforcer for a local roofer's union. He has a violent history. He was also a terrifying husband and father, a man whose brutality traumatized Frannie, her sister, and their mother. While dealing with the fallout from the failed apprehension, Frannie is engulfed by the chaos and danger set off by her father's return, and how these two plot strands develop and come together is at the core of The Poor Boy's Game.

[This story is as much about Frannie as it is about Philadelphia...]

Mar 31 2014 4:00pm

Fresh Meat: Hustle by Tom Pitts

Hustle by Tom Pitts is a gritty, harsh story of two male prostitutes from San Francisco who attempt to blackmail a wealthy lawyer in order to get off the streets and out of the business (available April 1, 2014).


Despite all the good authors working in the field today, most noir is not exactly what you'd call mainstream. In noir's stubborn allegiance to darkness and loss, fuck-ups and crackpots, it may never be.  From a fan's perspective, this is exciting.  It means noir remains an area not entirely sullied by commercial concerns, and the result is books that can take risks.  Tom Pitts' Hustle is that sort of book, a fearless exploration of a bleak, harsh slice of the world.  In its frank portrayal of drug-addicted male hustlers angling and scrambling to survive, it's a novel with a transgressive edge, and you don't have to read very far into it to sense it will take you where it needs to go, not where it thinks the reader may want to travel.     

We're in San Francisco, present day.  Donny and his friend Big Rich are two addicts with no jobs who make whatever money they can as street prostitutes.  Donny seems to be in his late teens; Big Rich is a little older.  They are best friends who look out for each other, and Rich serves as a mentor to Donny.  They are part of a group of boys who hustle, and from page one, Pitts gives us a clear-eyed view of their tight community:

...Down on that corner, everybody knew each other.  Everybody was into each other's business.  The boys depended on each other for information.  Information was survival.  They all knew the regulars, the older men who would cruise the corner in their luxury cars.  They got to know who was married, who liked to party, who liked it freaky, and who was HIV-positive.  Some of the tricks didn't care who knew, but some liked to keep it a secret.

[Taking it to the streets...]

Mar 13 2014 2:00pm

Can We Call it Noir?: The Family of Pascual Duarte

I would love to do an experiment and have a person begin The Family of Pascual Duarte knowing just the title. There would be no cover photo, and the author's name would be blacked out. The reader would have none of the usual markers on which to base an expectation of what kind of book he or she is starting. Let's also assume that this person has a wide knowledge of genre fiction as well as so-called literary fiction. I would bet that when finished with the book and asked to describe it, this person would come up with words such as “dark”, “bleak”, “fatalistic”, “existential”. And the story itself? Well, it's about a man, Pascual Duarte, who tells us his tale in terse, blunt prose. The setting is Spain, from the late 1800s to 1937, and the story we're reading is supposed to be a manuscript Pascual Duarte wrote while awaiting execution in prison. The manuscript's dedication reads, “To the memory of the distinguished patrician Don Jesus Gonzalez de la Riva, Count of Torremejia, who, at the moment when the author of this chronicle came to kill him, called him Pascualillo and smiled.” Indeed, the book is a chronicle of a man who kills over and over again, both animals and people, and who has been condemned to death for his many crimes. His life takes place in a poor, rural environment, in harsh surroundings. There is no redemption at the end, no enlightenment of any kind, and so (this reader tells me) the book is probably best described as noir. In its stark pessimism, its depiction of a brutal unforgiving world, its portrayal of a criminal mentality, it is pure noir. Is the author known for writing noir? What other crime novels has the author done?

[So, do you know who wrote it?]

Feb 23 2014 12:00pm

Gangster Cinema, British Style: The Squeeze (1977), Starring Stacey Keach, Carol White, and David Hemmings

Between 1971, the year Get Carter was released, and 1980, when The Long Good Friday came out, the British made no great gangster films. If truth be told, no British crime films of any kind from this period can be called masterpieces. But during that decade, there were a few imperfect gems produced – films that never quite got the respect or attention they deserved.  One such film is 1977's The Squeeze, directed by Michael Apted. A director of sterling versatility – Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), The World is Not Enough (1999), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), the Up Series of documentary films, to name a few –  Apted began his career in television, where he learned to shoot quickly and on location. The Squeeze was his third fiction feature, and his skill at shooting all around London, in natural light, and using hand-held cameras, is evident. Filmed very much in rough neighborhoods, the movie depicts late-seventies London with documentary-level clearness, and there’s an unpolished quality to its look that holds up well today. It's fascinating to see ordinary pubs where working stiffs drink, a porn film district crowded with patrons, a pre-gentrified Notting Hill with boarded up houses everywhere, abandoned spots under elevated highways where drunks congregate at night by fires. It's a London where tension and criminal enterprise exist as things you'd expect to flourish.

The plot is simple. Alcoholic ex-cop Jim Naboth (Stacey Keach, playing a Brit) is unemployed and just out of rehab when he finds himself pulled into a kidnapping case. A group of gangsters has abducted his ex-wife, Jill (Carol White), and the daughter she's had with her current husband, Foreman (Edward Fox). The daughter, Christine, is about seven. The reason they've snatched the mother and daughter is to hold them as leverage in a scheme to get one million pounds out of Foreman, a rich businessman. It's clear they have a robbery planned against an armored vehicle from Foreman's business that on a certain day will be loaded with cash, and what they're asking Foreman to do is create the conditions for a smooth heist. He'll come away seeming the victim and they'll get their money. And Foreman, understandably stressed by the abduction, is almost willing to accept their demands until he agrees to let Naboth help him. Naboth will try to prevent the heist and rescue Jill and Christine. As an ex-copper, he has the nerves and experience for the job. But even after rehab, his drinking continues at a fierce rate. Too often he's more focused on getting to the pub and having his next glass of sherry than on investigating anything. 

[He may have the experience, but can he handle temptation...]

Feb 9 2014 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: Where Monsters Dwell by Jorgen Brekke

Where Monsters Dwell, a crime debut by Norwegian author Jorgen BrekkeWhere Monsters Dwell by Jørgen Brekke is the debut in translation of a whodunit-slash-literary thriller featuring Virginia cop Felicia Stone and Inspector Odd Sinsaker of Norway as they face distant murders linked to old journal of a 16th-century serial killer (available February 11, 2014).

When I received the offer, I jumped at the chance to review Where Monsters Dwell. I learned the book was a bestseller in Norway, and as a big fan of Scandinavian crime fiction, I looked forward to the chance to read a brooding tale that would also explore social issues. I was thinking Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason…and now perhaps Jørgen Brekke. Couldn’t wait. Somehow, I forgot that not all the Nordic crime writers are out to make a social point, and not all of them are defined by the word “brooding.“  Some just write pure whodunits, plot-driven books where the emphasis is on one thing: identifying the murderer.

Still, has a Nordic crime writer ever written a pure cozy? If so, I haven’t encountered one. Even the writers who don’t explore the underside of Scandinavian society, thereby loading their books with social import, delve into dark areas, and Where Monsters Dwell is a case in point. 

From its opening pages, we are presented with a jagged, violent puzzle.

A little boy, in the present day, trembles under his bed, hiding from the unfamiliar man who hit his mother with a crowbar.  No luck with his attempt at concealment.  The towering man finds the boy and drags him out to the middle of the room by his hair.

In 1528, in Norway, an odd monk has embarked on a mysterious journey.  There is something vaguely sinister about this man.  He comes by sea to Norway, the land of his birth, and stays in a village inn.  He is planning to leave the village soon and continue on through Norway, across fjords, going somewhere, but first he must see somebody.  When he sees the man he’s looking for, a beard-cutter and artisan, he attacks the man to take his most prized possessions, his knives. As the monk puts it:

”Better knives cannot be found in all of Christendom."

[And on we go to Poe...]

Dec 19 2013 11:45pm

Gangster Cinema, British Style: Face (1997)

If The Long Good Friday (1980) is the British crime film that captures the entrepreneurial spirit percolating in Britain just before Margaret Thatcher's ascension to Prime Minister in 1979, a harbinger of the aggressive free market days to come, then director Antonia Bird's Face serves as the bookend to the Thatcherite era. Shot in 1996 as the John Major led Conservative government was fading and released in the changed political world of fall 1997, after Labor Party Leader Tony Blair had taken power, Face is a heist-gone-wrong tale that sheds a bleak light on the era's values and what those values left behind.

Set in London's dingy East End, where Antonia Bird lived for several years, Face follows Ray (Robert Carlyle), the nominal head of a five-man group that plans to rob a security depot. Their expected haul: two million pounds. Four of the five men know each other well, and the fifth is the nephew of a long-time confederate of the other four.

Ray and Dave (Ray Winstone) clearly have done a lot of jobs and carry themselves with a measure of professional assurance. Julian (Philip Davis) also has experience, but an erratic temperament. Stevie (Steve Waddington), is a big, gentle guy who's a bit slow in the head and who Ray takes care of like a brother. Jason (musician Damon Albarn in his movie debut) is the group's cocksure rookie. A somewhat motley crew who do a job that doesn't bring them the haul they expected, that falls apart in betrayal and acrimony—the film's basic plot bears the influence of Resevoir Dogs, released five years earlier. But where Tarantino's film focuses on its characters only insofar as they relate to their heist and its consequences, Face looks at its criminals in a wide social context. 

No glamour or luxury touches these men. They own ordinary cars, live in drab flats, and hang out in neighborhood pubs. They have to deal with daughters and wives, girlfriends and mothers, and they fumble around in these relationships, not always sure of themselves.

[Crime can be a tiring, sad, dirty business.]

Nov 1 2013 6:30pm

Gangster Cinema, British Style: The Hit (1984), Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, and Tim Roth

The Hit (1984) directedd by Stephen Frears, starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, and Tim RothTo grass, in British underworld parlance, means to inform on others to the police. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it derives from the word “grasshopper,” Cockney rhyming slang for copper.  The term has been around in Britain awhile, since the 1930's. In the 1970's, British journalists invented a new word, “supergrass,” to label an informer whose information implicates a large number of people involved in criminal activity. In London at the time, a number of mass trials saw supergrasses testify against former associates, gaining reduced sentences or outright immunity for themselves. Willie Parker, the Terence Stamp character in The Hit, released in 1984, is precisely this type of informer, and in an early scene in the film we see him standing in court, dressed in a suit, as he blithely turns state's evidence against a number of his old confederates. Seated in the dock as he details their crimes, they glare at him with murder in their eyes.  When his testimony finishes, as he's led away by the court officers, the criminals break out together in song: “We'll all meet again. Don't know where, don't know when...” The viewer can’t help but chuckle (singing like this occurred at an actual London trial during the period), but we know that somebody from this pack of villains will be trying at a later date to even the score with Willie.

Cut to a flat, sunny landscape with bleach-white buildings, the southern coast of Spain. It's the Costa del Sol, or as the Brits call it, the Costa del Crime.  Since the late 70’s, the area has been a popular haven for British criminals looking to escape pressure back home. In the welcoming Mediterranean climate, they settle in and live a comfortable life. Tensions between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar have resulted in lax extradition enforcement, and the criminals have traditionally blended in with the already large British expat community there.  It’s the same region where Sexy Beast (2000) opens, with Ray Winstone’s retired English robber lounging poolside at his villa. But even if the authorities don’t come for you, people from your past life will.  Just as the peace of Ray Winstone’s exile is destroyed by a former confederate determined to pull him back to London for another job, Terence Stamp’s Willie Parker can’t maintain his distance from his old world forever.  Snatched from his book-lined home by four Spanish thugs, he winds up stuffed into a car with an older quiet professional killer named Braddock (John Hurt) and his young eager assistant Myron (Tim Roth). 

Their instructions are simple: drive Parker across Spain and over to Paris, France.  The head mobster he betrayed years ago is now out of prison and living in Paris, and once they reach their destination, the boss will have Parker executed.

[It's always simple for the trigger men...or is it?]

Sep 30 2013 2:00pm

Fresh Meat: Let the Old Dreams Die by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Let the Old Dreams Die by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Let the Old Dreams Die by John Ajvide Lindqvist is a horrifying and chilling short fiction anthology, translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg (available October 1, 2013).

Before I started this collection, John Ajvide Lindqvist was a writer I knew only through acquaintance with the 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In.  The movie, adapted from his novel of the same name, impressed me a lot. It has a gritty, realistic feel, despite its supernatural elements, and it uses the horror genre both to deliver gory shocks and to develop sympathetic characters. If the book is anything like the movie, I thought when I saw it, this writer is damn good.

Suspicion confirmed. Let the Old Dreams Die is a collection of twelve stories by Lindqvist, and all the strengths that were apparent in his vampire story are on hand here.

Everything for him begins with intriguing characters. In the first tale, “The Border,” a female customs officer named Tina has a sixth sense that makes her great at her job. She can feel it in her bones when people are hiding things.  Despite her professional renown, she's a lonely person in a drab relationship— that is, until she meets a man passing through customs who upends her entire existence. This is a story that goes in a direction I didn't anticipate at all, and as it unfolds, connecting Tina's abilities to Nature, I was reminded of the classic British horror writer Arthur Machen (best known for his novella The Great God Pan). There is also a sexual component to the story that would make Clive Barker proud. It's not that the sex is especially graphic, but it is about how the needs of the body lead to unexpected transformation. “The Border” has a premise poised on the cusp of absurdity, but the richness of Tina as a person, the way you root for her as she struggles, make this story engrossing.

[We're engrossed too!...]

Sep 15 2013 1:00pm

Gangster Cinema, British Style: Never Let Go (1960) With Peter Sellers and Richard Todd

Never Let GoEven a short list of the comic portraits created onscreen by Peter Sellers is impressive: Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, President Merkin Muffley and the mad Doctor Strangelove in the film Doctor Strangelove, Chauncey Gardner in Being There. No one who thinks of Peter Sellers the actor doesn't think of comedy. And yet one time and one time only, Sellers took on an entirely dramatic role, and the part he chose for this experiment was in a British gangster film. The film is Never Let Go, from 1960, co-starring Richard Todd, and in it Sellers plays a violent, sadistic villain. He plays the role straight, and he personifies a monster so well, one can only wish he had gone the nasty route a couple more times during his career.

Sellers is Lionel Meadows. He runs a London car garage that also serves as the center of a car theft operation. One evening, Meadows sends an underling out to steal a 1959 Anglia, and the thief takes a car that belongs to John Cummings (Richard Todd), a cosmetic salesman with a wife and two young daughters.  Cummings reports the theft to the police, but as the police tell him, stolen vehicles not found within forty-eight hours stand little chance of being found.  The car theft rings repaint the bodies, change the license plates, and do other alterations so the cars can be resold. Cummings has just bought the Anglia, but because he's been struggling in his job, barely making ends meet, he couldn't afford to insure it. Yet he absolutely needs it if he is to have any chance of improving his job performance. Getting around by bus and on foot to meet prospective clients has led to him being late for too many appointments. One more screw-up and he could be demoted to the stock room, even fired.  He has to have that car back no matter who took it.

[All a good noir story needs: equal parts principle, desperation, and pride...]

Jul 26 2013 8:30pm

Gangster Cinema, British Style: Performance (1970) with Mick Jagger and James Fox

Us Movie Poster for Performance (1970)A tagline for Performance, released in 1970, described the movie this way:

“This film is about madness. And sanity. Fantasy. And reality. Death. And life. Vice. And versa.”

It's a tagline of great accuracy. Few films have focused so obsessively on the idea of fusion.  And no gangster film ever made unfolds quite like Performance does.  It begins by plunging you into the East End London criminal underworld and the violent activities of a professional gangster named Chas (James Fox).  For about half the film, you are immersed in his existence as an enforcer for a London gang.  But when Chas, on the run after angering his boss, has to hide out, the film takes you into a completely different realm.  This realm is a drug-filled bohemian household inhabited by the fading reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and the rock star's two housemates Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton).  How these two polar opposites, the hard macho gangster and the fluid seductive rock star, affect and change one another, is the crux of the film.

[The strange, even shocking trailer after the jump..]

Jun 5 2013 12:00pm

Wrapped Up in the Mystery of Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz

From its opening sentence, Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz throws you off balance:

I’ll tell you about another adventure that’s even more strange.

Odd opening line, and a few pages later, the oddness continues. Our narrator and his companion Fuks are tramping through the woods somewhere in Eastern Europe looking for a cheap rooming house. Fuks says he knows of one nearby. It is hot, they are tired, and just off the forest path they come across something disturbing:

“A sparrow.”


It was a sparrow.  A sparrow hanging on a piece of wire. Hanged. Its little head to one side, its beak wide open. It was hanging on a thin wire hooked over a branch. Remarkable. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow.  The eccentricity of it clamored with a loud voice and pointed to a human hand that had torn into the thicket—but who? Who hanged it, why, for what reason?

And so our mystery has kicked off, and though the narrator (named Witold) and Fuks continue on to their rooming house and check in, they can’t shake from their minds the image of the hanging sparrow. In bed that night in the room he shares with Fuks, Witold suddenly realizes that he can’t hear Fuks breathing in the other bed. Where has Fuks gone?

But in that case...what if he had gone to see the sparrow? I don’t know why I thought of it, but I knew right away that this was quite possible, he could have gone, he had been interested in the sparrow, he was in the bushes looking for an explanation, his carroty, phlegmatic mug was just the thing for such a search, it was just like him....to ponder, to scheme, who hanged it, why did he hang it......anyway, he had awakened, or maybe he hadn’t gone to sleep at all, and, his curiosity piqued, he got up, maybe he went to check some detail and to look around in the night?...was he playing detective?...I was inclined to believe it.  More and more I was inclined to believe it.

It’s clear we’re not in the realm of a conventional mystery novel, and in fact, Cosmos is not a genre work per se at all.

[We like unconventional mystery novels too...]

May 24 2013 9:30am

Gangster Cinema, British Style: The Long Good Friday

The Americans invented the gangster film, but British film studios have been turning out their contributions to the genre since the 1940s. From the 1947 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock through the iconic 1971 Michael Caine vehicle Get Carter to the Guy Ritchie movies and Layer Cake, the Brits have produced gangster pictures with a feel uniquely their own.

In 1980, The Long Good Friday hit British theaters, and I vividly remember seeing it the day it opened in Manhattan two years later. Buzz in the film magazines I read had been good, but I was still surprised by how gripping I found it. To this day, after many viewings, I never get tired of watching it.

[It’s not especially long, but it is especially good...]

Mar 11 2013 9:30am

Re-Investigating Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley

Trent's Last Case by E.C. BentleyFunny how age changes your view of a book. I’m thinking specifically of Trent’s Last Case, the famous detective novel published in 1913 by E.C. Bentley, and how my view of it has flipped between two readings 35 years apart. As a teenager of 14 or 15, when I first read it, I knew enough about the history of detective fiction to know the book’s stature as a classic of the genre. Blurbs on the edition I owned proclaimed its greatness. There was Dorothy L. Sayers: “...a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original” and there was Agatha Christie: “One of the three best detective stories ever written.” I’m sure I wondered what the other two best detective stories ever written were, but for G.K. Chesterton, competition with other mysteries wasn’t even an issue. Trent’s Last Case was, in his words, “the finest detective story of modern times.”

Quite a build-up, and I remember starting the novel with great excitement. It’s a short book and I read it through quickly. The amateur detective, Philip Trent, investigates the English country house murder of an American business tycoon. In the course of his inquiries Trent pokes around, questions servants, utters witticisms and generally comports himself with all the confidence of a great sleuth. He diligently analyzes clues and, like any self-respecting detective of the Golden Age, he explains his reasoning in little bits and pieces, tantalizing both the reader and those around him in the story. At what seems the novel’s climax, he reveals his solution, certain of course that he has solved the case. But in fact Trent has misread all the clues and the solution that he lays out is not the true one. Later, over a hearty dinner, Trent is told the real solution. The person who tells him this dissects his reasoning, laying out with utter clarity every point Trent got wrong. Trent listens with “the pallor of excitement” and while gulping a lot of wine. Though he tries to retain his usual spirit of good humor, Trent in essence is humiliated. It is then that we learn why this particular amateur detective has worked his last case.

And as a teenager reading, avid mystery fan though I was, I said, “Huh?”

[Teenagers say that often...]

Jan 29 2013 10:30am

Caught in the Web of Martha Ivery

Editor’s note: When we first heard from Scott Adlerberg, we gave him a hard time. Hed approached us about a “pre-pub” excerpt of a book we discovered had been out for a while, though with a different press than he now has. However, when he told us his tale, we not only understood how it happened, we knew we had to share it with you, too. The only name changed is that of the FBI agent in charge of the criminal investigation. Read on, and enter for your chance to win!

I’ve never considered myself a gullible person. To begin with, my father was a criminal lawyer, and from the time I was young, dinner table chat in our family consisted of crime talk.  An excellent raconteur, my father had no qualms about describing his cases and the people he was defending—accused con artists, robbers, murderers, the works. His tone was colorful but matter of fact, and even as a little boy, I could sense and appreciate that he was telling me adult things most parents prefer not to tell their kids. Over pork chops and beans, a story of a guy shooting another guy in a bar. With spaghetti and meatballs, a tale of a husband who allegedly bludgeoned his wife to death, or vice versa (an account of a wife doing in her husband). You get the picture. It was blood and guts stuff—my mother listening, too, of course—but the stories rarely scared me. On the contrary, put into an involving narrative by my father, the cases he had and the clients he defended usually struck me as fascinating.

[Fascinating and dangerous...]

Jan 17 2013 10:30am

Fresh Meat: December’s Thorn by Phillip DePoy

December’s Thorn by Phillip DePoy is the seventh book in the Fever Devilin mystery series, set in rural Georgia (available January 22, 2013).

I’m new to author Phillip DePoy and his Fever Devilin series, but as I got into December’s Thorn, it didn’t take me long to gather that Fever has been through an awful lot in his previous six books. Fever is a resident of Blue Mountain, a tiny town in the Georgian Appalachian Mountains, and in Blue Mountain eccentric passions run high. Even as a former academic, a folklorist by training, Fever can’t avoid danger. For one thing, in his previous adventure, Fever nearly died after being shot. So Fever’s fiance Lucinda and his friend Sheriff Skidmore and concerned psychiatrist Ceridwen Nelson keep reminding him.  Of course it’s clear that medical treatment saved Fever’s life, but his return to actual day to day living only occurred after he spent three months in a coma. Off that experience he may be ready for a calm period, but quiet and calm won’t come to him.

[He’ll sleep when he’s dead...again...]